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The name game, Part II

July 9, 2007 | 11:37 am

While Bill Clinton contemplates what he would be called (officially, at least) if Hillary Clinton makes history by becoming America's first female president, we've got some bad news for her and other White House contenders. Even if they achieve their dream job, the odds are dramatically declining that they'll be rewarded with what once was the most basic of honors: having a school named for them someday.

George_washington_dollar That's the conclusion of a new study by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, which found that it is "increasingly rare for public schools to be named after presidents -- or people, in general -- and increasingly common to name schools after natural features."

The study makes a persuasive case that the trend may not be good for the body politic (setting aside the matter of bruised egos for our prominent citizens).

The report focused on seven states -- Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio and Wisconsin -- and came up with statistics with which you can amaze your friends. For instance:

* Of almost 3,000 public schools in Florida, five are named for George Washington, 11 for manatees.

* Over the last 20 years, a public school built in Arizona was almost 50 times more likely to be named after a mesa, a cactus or some such than after a president.

* In New Jersey, 16% of schools built before 1948 were named after presidents; over the last two decades, that figure has dropped to 6%.

Extrapolating, study authors Jay P. Greene, Brian Kisida and Jonathan Butcher say that "the same story is playing out all over the country" (and given their exhaustive research, we are not about to quibble with that analysis).

"Why should we care?" no doubt some (make that most) might ask. Well, here's where the report becomes provocative.   

It notes that in our contentious age, when actions or language that seemed benign in the past can spur furious debate, naming a school for a historical figure is no longer a simple matter. Washington and Thomas Jefferson, after all, were slave owners (in 1997, the New Orleans school board forbade naming a school for anyone with that on their record).

Even Abraham Lincoln gets criticized by some for abusing executive authority, the study points out (it does not broach the back and forth in some quarters about whether the Great Emancipator was gay).

The bottom line, according to the report, is that nowadays, proposing to name a school after someone "consumes political capital that the coalitions governing schools are increasingly unwilling to spend. But shrinking from a fight over naming schools may be symptomatic of a broader problem with civic education. To teach civics effectively, schools have to be willing to take a stand. To teach tolerance, they have to be intolerant of intolerance. To teach the virtues of democracy and liberty, schools have to argue that democracies are superior systems of government. The unwillingness of school boards to take stands when naming schools may indicate a reluctance to take the stands necessary to teach civics effectively."

Who knew? Check out the study here.

-- Don Frederick

Photo: George Washington; Credit: