What’s (not) in a name

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“Whispering Winds” sounds like it might be a luxury resort, or maybe a golf course, but not a public school. But it is, in Phoenix, Ariz. A public school in Arizona, alas, is 50 times more likely to be named for a river, an animal or even an insect than for a president, a war hero or other notable figure from our history. In a study released this week by the Manhattan Institute, Jay P. Greene, Brian Kisida and Jonathan Butcher show that Arizona is not unique. An even broader trend turned up in their analysis of public school names in six other representative states.

Florida is one of the more surprising examples. The state has 3,000 public schools, but only five are named for George Washington, while 155 are named for lakes, 91 for wooded areas, 54 for palm trees and 11 for manatees. Even discounting the three in Manatee County, Fla., it’s startling to learn that Florida communities are almost a third less likely to pay homage to the nation’s first president than to honor the slow-moving marine mammals.

This trend is a reflection of both the priorities of school boards across the country as well as the fact that, as the study notes, “naming schools after people consumes political capital that the coalitions governing schools are increasingly unwilling to spend.” It’s not simply a manifestation of some political correctness doctrine. Across the board, schools are more likely to be named for a tree or a fish than for a person. In New Jersey, for instance, roughly 55 percent of schools built before 1947 were named for something other than a person; since 1988 that number is more than 73 percent. In Massachusetts the change is comparable.

In place of people, more schools are named after things of nature. In Wisconsin, the likelihood that a school built after 1980 was twice as likely to get a nature name than schools dedicated before 1947. In Minnesota, three times as likely, and in Arizona the likelihood has increased by four-fold.

Does this further reflect the failing of civics instruction in public schools? According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress 2006 report card on civics education, only 27 percent of 12th graders have a “proficient” knowledge of civics, which is about the same as the percentage of eighth-graders who can explain the full meaning of the Declaration of Independence.

Students can learn what they need to know about American history and government as effectively in a high school named for a tree as in a school named for a president, and it’s probably true that many kids are more likely to recognize a manatee than James Monroe or Audie Murphy. Changing a school’s name holds no inherent benefit for improving the education it offers. But this measure is, as the study’s authors argue, akin to the canary in the mineshaft. The declining interest in civics implied in the study is disappointing.

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