Alan Weiss’s Monday Morning Memo® – 02/22/2021
“Presentism” is the uncritical adherence to contemporary attitudes with the concomitant tendency to apply them to past events and interpret those events through them. Recently, the San Francisco school board (and others) voted to rename schools now named for Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and other historical figures. That involves over 40 schools, about a third of the system, and millions of dollars.
Chattel slavery was and is a horrendous crime, a heinous social condition that bears constant review and discussion and reconciliation. Such slavery has been in existence for thousands of years, including the ancient Greeks, tribes in Africa, and throughout the Nile Valley. But not everyone supported it during those times, and many people in the times of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln believed it to be wrong, criminal, and sinful. (Jefferson himself supposedly said about slavery, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”)
Yet, if we erected statues and named buildings only after “perfect people” of their times as judged by our current times there would be precious few statues and building names other than those like the New York subway system: trains are named after the alphabet. Take the “A” Train.
But my greater concern—because I’m not going to fight elected officials’ decisions to take down statues or rename buildings, which is their right—is that such actions are mere tokinsim. The school board in San Franciso is spending more time on this than in trying to get kids back in school, which the CDC is strongly advocating. We find it easy to rename a school, but no one seems willing to take on the thorny issue of changing how schools are funded so that ALL communities are equally endowed with the resources they need. Property taxes inherently favor wealthy communities and penalize poorer communities. Nor are the politicians willing to take on the very powerful (and bloc-voting) teachers’ unions, which oppose charter schools because they are such a threat to union power. I believe parents should have a right to send their kids to the best schools available for their needs.
I wouldn’t go around renaming schools because what goes on inside of them is the key, not what’s painted outside of them. But if the former is undermined by the latter, then we have a huge problem. We need to deal with the real issues of education equality and opportunity, not with the superficial—merely pretending we’re actually doing something. Henry Ford was a virulent anti-Semite (and Charles Lindburgh wasn’t far behind him) but the motor company still bears his name, and the Brown family, no matter what rationalization you use, were the most heinous of all the slave traders, yet the self-congratulatory, extremely progressive Brown University, endowed by the family, refuses to change its name.
Postscript: Two hundred years from now (or, perhaps, sooner) society will be horrified by our practice today of eating living creatures, many of which we “harvest” and slaughter. (I’ve always wondered about people denouncing the sale of furs while wearing leather shoes.) That will be their “presentism.”
Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.—John F. Kennedy
Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.—Leo Tolstoy