by Martin Perschler, Editor
Last July, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research released a study on trends in public school names.(1) The report, which received national newspaper and television coverage, revealed a decrease in the number of new schools named after presidents and other historical and public figures and a corresponding increase in the number of schools named after plants and other natural features. The authors of the study noted that the shift to nature names was particularly striking in Arizona, where a public school built in the last two decades was "almost 50 times more likely to be named after such things as a mesa or a cactus than after a leader of the free world."
According to the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education, the Arizona public school system had four schools named after former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln as of 2006; the Grand Canyon State also had four schools named after the ocotillo plant of the Desert Southwest. By comparison, Illinois—"the Land of Lincoln"—had 89 Lincoln schools and (not surprisingly) no ocotillo schools. Illinois also topped California—a state with a population nearly three times that of Illinois but with only 67 Lincoln schools among the more than 9,600 in the public school system there. California, incidentally, had only one school named after the ocotillo plant in the Department of Education's data set.
Lincoln stands out among world leaders for his commanding roles in permanently abolishing slavery and preserving a nation torn apart by the American Civil War during the 1860s. In 2002, the United States could boast nearly 700 public elementary and secondary schools named after him. A study conducted that year by David Rapaport, then a teacher at Bret Harte Middle School in San Jose, California, and published in the newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Association, noted that the southeastern United States, specifically the 11 states in rebellion between 1861 and 1865, accounted for less than 9 percent of the schools named for Lincoln even though they accounted for 30 percent of the U.S. population in 2000.(2) As one might expect, those 11 states accounted for 84 percent of the public schools named after Robert E. Lee, general of the Confederate forces during the Civil War.
One of the questions the Manhattan Institute study did not answer was whether a student attending Lincoln Elementary School in Mesa, Arizona, has a better grounding in civics than a student attending Ocotillo Elementary in Tucson, or whether that student at Ocotillo has a stronger sense of regional identity and attachment to the Desert Southwest than his or her peer at Lincoln. The Rapaport study did not look at whether students attending Robert E. Lee Elementary in Hampton, Virginia, have the same perceptions of Lincoln and Lee as their peers at Abraham Lincoln Elementary in Oak Park, Illinois. What may matter the most in the end is that students at any school have some sense of the history and context that gives their schools' names meaning.
The implications of this shift in public school nomenclature could preoccupy sociologists and education policymakers for years. But should heritage professionals be concerned about this trend? On the one hand, naming schools for natural features—in most cases, local or regional features such as ocotillos—can reap benefits. In new communities, for instance, which must rely almost exclusively on locally relevant street and place names to reinforce, if not invent, a sense of identity, the formal recognition of a distinctive local or regional feature in the name of a new school or other public building can help establish a shared sense of place.
On the other hand, the shift away from prominent public and historical figures in the naming of public schools, libraries, and even shopping malls, whether for political correctness or other reasons, erodes that opportunity to build familiarity and name recognition. This shift may mean that school teachers, museums, history organizations, and historic site managers, including managers of presidential sites, will need to redouble their efforts to impress upon students and their families the significance of an individual and his or her contributions to society.
The many groups across the United States dedicated to keeping the spirit of Abraham Lincoln alive can report progress in that regard: Over the past several years, the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, the National Park Service, the States of Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky, and other institutions and organizations nationwide have invested tremendous amounts of energy and other resources towards marking the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth in February 2009 with public events and significant improvements at Lincoln related historic sites. Beginning with this issue, CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship will be featuring essays and reviews that focus on Lincoln, his life, contributions, and the sites dedicated to his memory for the duration of the bicentennial celebration period. That celebration, which runs through 2010, will ensure that Abraham Lincoln endures in American memory for the next 100 years and that Americans continue to recognize and respect the wisdom and selflessness of his actions.
1. Jay P. Greene, Brian Kisida, and Jonathan Butcher, "What's in a Name? The Decline in the Civic Mission of School Names," Manhattan Institute for Policy Research Civic Report no. 51 (July 2007), http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/cr_51.htm, accessed on December 29, 2007. The study looked at public schools in Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
2. David Rapaport, "Class Project: The Distribution of Schools Named After Abraham Lincoln," For the People: A Newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Association 4 no. 3 (Autumn 2002), http://www.abrahamlincolnassociation.org/Newsletters/4-3.pdf, accessed on December 28, 2007; U.S. Census Bureau, "State Interim Population Projections," http://www.census.gov/population/www/projections/ projectionsagesex.html, accessed on December 28, 2007.