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Hasty move to strip names from schools should be rethought

San Francisco has placed its Abraham Lincoln High

San Francisco has placed its Abraham Lincoln High School on a list of schools to be renamed. Credit: AP/Jeff Chiu

In the history books we grew up with, they are heroes celebrated for their ideals and their accomplishments. In the minds of many modern detractors they are miscreants decried for owning slaves or refusing to grant equal rights to all.

So were any of our past presidents pure enough of heart and flawless enough in deed to deserve celebration?

Yes is both the obvious answer and the true one.

That does not mean reevaluating historical figures has no merit: that’s the point of studying history. But such updates must be tempered by an understanding of historical context and a cognizance of the human condition, along with a bit of common sense and humility.

We are all flawed, the men who established the legal and political framework for this nation, the masses who built it and the current generation judging them. Even our heroes cannot avoid serious missteps, and few fare well when actions deemed acceptable in the distant past are judged by modern standards.

Now try explaining that to the San Francisco school board.

In 2018, that board created a School Names Advisory Committee to "engage the larger San Francisco community in a sustained discussion regarding public school names." Instead, that committee did a bit of shoddy research and on Jan. 28 the board overwhelmingly voted to rename 44 schools, more than one-third of the city’s total. Included were schools named after presidents Hoover, Jefferson, Washington, McKinley, Garfield, Monroe, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. Non-presidential school names nixed included El Dorado, Mission, Presidio, John Muir, Paul Revere, Daniel Webster, Robert Louis Stevenson and Francis Scott Key.

Since the vote, some criticism has focused on the committee’s process, and rightly so. The justifications for the renamings are mostly quick Google searches and Wikipedia skimming. The Paul Revere ban, for instance, is based on a Top 10 list from the History Channel that the committee misunderstood.

But such nitpicking, while fair, misses a larger point.

The movement to take down statues and rename schools began with a push to stop celebrating traitors who waged war against the United States for the right to own slaves. These men and their Confederate battle flag and rebel nickname were often chosen to spit in the eye of Black Americans and integrationists, honored for their worst acts and traits.

But now that movement has mushroomed, and increasingly seems to suggest that no historically powerful figure in the United States, particularly if white and male, can be worthy.

Most Americans don’t believe this. A vocal minority shouldn’t be able to impose it.

The San Francisco school board’s vote was preliminary, with a final vote in April. Some of the 44 names might need changing, after plenty of debate. But a wholesale and largely undebated purging of Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt and the others can’t be justified, and school board members should be cognizant of the lesson they’re trying to teach.

History is rarely kind to politicians caught up in irrational mob mentalities.

— The editorial board