Boston area school divided
March 19, 2001 9:20 PM   Subscribe

Boston area school divided by its namesake... Students and principal call for Agassiz Elementry to change its name, due to the racist evolutionary theory spun by the 19th century naturalist. "Reading about Agassiz was so painful I had to step back for a while." [says the student heralding the renaming effort]. A sample of Louis Agassiz's mindset "I experienced pity at the sight of this degraded and degenerate race, and their lot inspired compassion in me in thinking that they were really men." A new namesake has already been found-- Maria Baldwin, first black principal of the school [and first to preside over an all-white school in the Northeast in 1889].

Should namesakes of public institutions have a "clean" record? Why did it take 126 years to mobilize a renaming effort?
posted by noom (17 comments total)

"Presentism" be damned, I think they should change the name. I don't think I would feel comfortable as a student of that school. I mean, I realize many of our most respected historical figures had great faults, but the contributions of this man to society seem relatively negligible unless you're a big fan of the Ice Age.
posted by Doug at 9:36 PM on March 19, 2001

Of course the school should be renamed. It makes utter sense; we are living in an era where schoolchildren are taught that the American Civil War was fought to free the slaves, WWII was fought to free the Jews, and the Gulf War was fought to free Kuwait. As a nation, our children have been and should continue to be taught that, above all, mistakes should be covered up, plastered over, and lied about. Any information pertaining to those mistakes should be burned, and any person who attempts to bring to light actual accounts of those mistakes should be vilified, tortured, and imprisoned. It is painfully obvious that the American way of life, the country itself, is threatened by this treason called "History," and every effort should be made to purge from the minds of American citizens any shred of fact or doubt of whatever is currently deemed to be the correct way to think.

Furthermore, it is also obvious that the most important lesson we can learn from this unsavory episode is that what we, as a nation, hold as morally correct at this time is the sole basis on which to judge all culture, all history, all peoples. For this reason, I state we should make a stand. We shall begin petitioning Congress for nuclear sterilization of Spain, for their crimes against the poor innocent souls of the MesoAmericans they so ruthlessly slaughtered. We shall petition Congress for the chemical eradication of the peoples of MesoAmerica, for their hideous practices of slavery and cannibalism. The Japanese, for Nanjing. The Chinese, for their current horrid babykilling tactics. The Australians, for their mistreatment of the Aborigines. The British, for their ruthless treatment of the helpless victims of the African continent. All tribes of Africa, for their crimes against each other. All of Eurasia, for being human. All of humanity will be cleansed, in the glowing light of our own correctness.
posted by Unxmaal at 10:14 PM on March 19, 2001

You'd have been quite comfortable as a student at that school, since you would have never had any clue about this guy's wacko racial theories until someone else came along and made a fuss about him. (Most 2nd graders spend little time plowing through the works of Stephen Jay Gould.) And it's impossible to make any meaningful argument that the achievements of Agassiz were lesser than that of an elemetary school principal.

BTW, are you sure you can use your computer without feeling uncomfortable? You may want to look into a vacuum-tube-based Internet appliance.
posted by aaron at 10:16 PM on March 19, 2001

Should we change the name of Agassiz Street in Cambridge while we're at it? I drive down that street occasionally and I feel a deep sense of shame every time. Of course, the street is full of potholes, so maybe that's a fitting tribute to the man...
posted by MarkAnd at 10:25 PM on March 19, 2001

Aaron, knowing your political beliefs, would you want your children attending Karl Marx High School? Or even worse...William Jefferson Clinton Elementary? Should we name a place of learning after a person who was so deluded by his racism that he twisted scientific reasoning in an attempt to undermine the dignity and value of a group of people?
And Unxmaal, you're just nuts. The man was a second rate 18th century naturalist. We name public works, and institutions after people to honor them. This man lived in an age when plenty of people, especially scientists, knew that blacks were "real men." Nobody is asking for his name to be removed from science texts, just off of the letterhead of a school.
If you'll excuse me, I have to go study for my exam tomorrow at Joseph Stalin University.
posted by Doug at 10:35 PM on March 19, 2001

We have no obligation to continuing honoring people whose beliefs are no longer considered honorable. There's a difference between covering up a mistake and no longer celebrating one.
posted by rcade at 11:38 PM on March 19, 2001

aaron, I guess I would feel uncomfortable if we commonly referred to our devices as "Shockley Machines." (Although I'm now forced to wonder if perhaps Ford Motors doesn't have a problem. "You will find in every glove compartment a spanking new copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion!")

But really. This is a public institution. rcade has it right.
posted by Skot at 1:39 AM on March 20, 2001

After WWII, they quickly changed the name of a narcotic that was synthetic and used for the military. It had been named in honor of Hitler and was called Dolphomine. They changed the name to methadone. That made the user a lot happier.
posted by Postroad at 3:25 AM on March 20, 2001

Sorry. I forgot: there are any number of places named in his honor, including a number of schools. His ideas on race are in line with many during the same time in which he lived. But he has made many great contributions, as can be seen in
Why not number our schools so that we will be sure of being "correct" at any given time? I gave up Franco American spaghetti right after the Spanish Civil War.
posted by Postroad at 3:56 AM on March 20, 2001

well, I spent seven years in cambridge public schools, and I was in fact not taught that the civil war was fought to free the slaves or anything like that. in fact, most of my elementary school education leaned in the other direction -- christopher columbus was an evil tyrant; abraham lincoln saw the slaves as political pawns; our involvement in the gulf war was reprehensible; etcetera etcetera.

also, I don't see what's wrong with changing the name, and I imagine they will do so eventually. it would be a bit insensitive to simply ignore this kid's objections. there's enough stuff named after agassiz at harvard that the city of cambridge need feel no obligation to honor him as well. the only danger is that it will turn into a snowball-effect thing, and soon we'll be renaming everything with any sort of negative connotation (the longfellow school, for instance).
posted by rabi at 4:52 AM on March 20, 2001

I say rename the damned thing, since I'm sure the little seven year old darlings are so distraught by this spectre of Racial Injustices Past that they are in grief counselling for several hours a day and on massive doses of sedatives, in between giving interviews to Geraldo and Oprah...
posted by m.polo at 4:56 AM on March 20, 2001

Names of public buildings indicate a respect for the person (and, by implication, their work and beliefs). If people don't have that respect, then changing doesn't seem wrong - although the views of others, who perhaps feel that the name is a tradition and reflects part of their own lifes and history (as an "abstract" name, for example) should be taken into account.

Mixed up with this is another problem - to what extent should we respect people whose views are inconsistent with today's culture? Presumably we have to compromise - this person was a product of the society he lived in and, in that context, did good work; on the other hand we cannot ignore the realisation that by our own standards, he was unacceptable. So respect is tempered by hindsight. That's fine - blind belief in heroes of the past doesn't seem like a good idea to me (look at the mess the USA is in with guns and the constitution). But, of course, blind vilification is just as bad.

Yet again life if complicated and there is no simple "right" answer...
posted by andrew cooke at 6:06 AM on March 20, 2001

The man was a second rate 18th century naturalist.

No, he was a first-rate 19th-century naturalist, one of the greatest of his day, probably the greatest American naturalist (though he was Swiss-born). He was loyal to his teacher Cuvier and thus on the wrong side of the evolution controversy, but that doesn't negate his achievements or his stature. Just because you don't know much about him doesn't mean he's not significant.
posted by rodii at 8:12 AM on March 20, 2001

I spent seven years in cambridge public schools

They don't call it the "Peoples Republic of Cambridge" for nothing, you know. Frankly, I'm surprised that the name stuck around as long as it has, but that's probably out of a better sense of history about Agassiz than people have beyond Route 128.

While we're engaging in rampant presentism, seems like it's a good time to dump all the "Lincoln Highs" and "JFK Junior Highs" and...(do you think?)...even the Ronald Reagan National Airport.

Of course, 18 years from now when my soon-to-be-born daughter finds herself graduating from "Nike Senior High" to attend "AOL-TimeWarner University", will we even remember that we ever named things after historical figures?
posted by briank at 8:50 AM on March 20, 2001

Aaron, knowing your political beliefs, would you want your children attending Karl Marx High School?

I will never subject my children to a public school. But if I did, I honestly wouldn't mind one bit what the name was. I might even send her there just for the amusement factor alone; they'd have some kickass T-shirts. I wonder what the team name would be ... the Proletariat? Maybe the Rootless Cosmopolitans. That would piss off even more people.

Or even worse...William Jefferson Clinton Elementary?

Sure, why not? It looks like pretty decent place.

Should we name a place of learning after a person who was so deluded by his racism that he twisted scientific reasoning in an attempt to undermine the dignity and value of a group of people?

I don't see why not, as long as his name wasn't put on there because of his racism. The vast majority of people of his time held beliefs that we consider racist today. To follow this to its logical conclusion, we'd have to cease all public honoration of just about everyone that lived before 1900 or so, as well as a ton of people after that. (And as we've just seen in another thread, we'd even have to start marginalizing Abraham Lincoln.)

There's a difference between covering up a mistake and no longer celebrating one.

We're not celebrating his mistake. It's obvious that not only were the children not being tragically oppressed by having to attend Agassiz Elementary, they never even had a clue about his beliefs. And neither did any of the adults apparently, until someone dug it up out of the forgotten bowels of history and starting shouting complaints from the rooftops.

Fighting racism is important. But this is approaching the level of a witchhunt. When people start having to go out of their way to dig for things to get insulted over, it's going too far.

Really, if people want something to get worked up about, they should be far more disgusted with 21st-century companies that are using Martin Luther King's and Jackie Robinson's struggles for equality in order to plug commercial products. (Cingular and Diner's Club are running such ad campaigns right now.)

This is a public institution.

I think this is an argument against the name change, not for it. If we're required to submit to this kid's objections, and yet we're not required to submit to the objections of a white supremacist's kid that attends MLK Elementary, we're granting special rights. (Sorry, but rights are either applicable to all or they're not, no matter how scummy the other side might be.) Better to just stay out of it.
posted by aaron at 12:17 AM on March 21, 2001

We're not celebrating his mistake.

Of course we are. Naming a public institution after someone is a celebration of that person. I see nothing wrong with no longer celebrating someone who believed black people were so degenerate they might not actually be human at all.

In 100 years if our own attitudes are considered backward and insensitive, tear our names off the buildings too. Time belongs to the present.
posted by rcade at 11:54 AM on March 21, 2001

The debate continues.
posted by crunchland at 4:14 PM on March 23, 2001

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