Recent front-page news in Berkeley: Parents, students and teachers at Jefferson Elementary School voted to change the institution’s name to Sequoia. Why? Because, as a slaveholder, he was judged unworthy of the honor and influence of having a school named after him.
Sure — there’s no arguing that he owned slaves. And that he didn’t free them. And that his life fell far short in many important respects from the beautiful rhetoric of freedom he crafted. Granting all that, I still don’t buy that the way to deal with that history is to try to expunge it. I also wonder how we benefit by subjecting every figure from our past to the absolute judgment of our current keen wisdom. It’s one thing to shelve once-distinguished personages who have become less relevant to who we are as a people. In Berkeley, schools memorializing James A. Garfield and John Greenleaf Whittier, remote 19th century icons with no lasting standing in most of today’s culture, have been renamed. Garfield morphed into Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, and Whittier became Berkeley Arts Magnet.
But Jefferson isn’t like Whittier or Garfield. His ideas and flaws are still crucial to our sense of who we are. Better to face that, make his name and legacy something to study for insight into what the United States was, is, and will be than to dump his name as a gesture of multicultural sensitivity. Not too many of the Dead White Men (formerly Founding Fathers) will stand up to a close inspection for political correctness. Even the Great Emancipator — hey, Abe! — comes off as a white supremacist bigot (and a gay one, at that — go figure).
Next on the History Cleansing Hit List: Washington School. Unless it’s named for Booker T., not George. Which would create its own problems for the progressives.
(And the fun sequel to all that is this correction in our town’s semi-daily newspaper, The Daily Planet: “In a June 3 article about the vote to change the name of Jefferson Elementary, Thomas Jefferson was erroneously referred to as the second president of the United States. He was the third.”)