Why we shouldn’t rename schools


Daily Post Editor

You may have forgotten that former President Obama opposed same-sex marriage for many years.

Other well-known political figures were against it too, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, former Sen. Barbara Boxer, Gov. Jerry Brown and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

But they all changed their minds, and nobody holds it against them today.

Intelligent people are constantly trying to learn new things. When they get new information, they rethink their beliefs. Their opinion changes. And as a society, we generally forgive those who admit they were once wrong about something and now have a new view.

That brings me to today’s topic — should the Palo Alto school board rename Terman, Jordan and Cubberley schools?

These three schools were named after great educators associated with Stanford University in the early 20th century.

But the complaint is that their names should be removed because they believed in the idea of eugenics — that the human race could be improved through selective reproduction including forced sterilization.

Eugenics proponents

Eugenics was a widely held belief at the time. Others who believed in eugenics were Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, Helen Keller, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Alexander Graham Bell, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Windell Holmes Jr., economist John Maynard Keynes, civil rights activist and author WEB Du Bois, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow, and Nobel Prize winners Linus Pauling and Francis Crick. Crick discovered DNA.

There’s one more person to add to that list — Adolph Hitler.

As ruler of Germany, he took eugenics to horrifying extremes. It was only after World War II and the Holocaust that the world realized what a terrible idea eugenics was.

I’m not defending eugenics. It was wrong. It promoted racism and ethnic cleansing.

I can say that with the advantage of being alive in 2016 and knowing history.

David Starr Jordan, Lewis Terman and Ellwood Cubberley were products of their time. They only had the information that was available to them back then.

They didn’t have a time machine

And in the early 20th century, before Hitler, eugenics was an acceptable, mainstream belief. These three Stanford scholars didn’t have a time machine that could take them to 2016, where they could find out which ideas would be acceptable in the future.

Jordan, Terman and Cubberley were each curious men who were committed to learning. Certainly if they knew what the future would hold, they wouldn’t have supported eugenics.

Take Jordan, for example. Not only was he the first president of Stanford but he was a zoologist who originally opposed Darwin’s evolutionary theory. But he continued to study the subject and kept an open mind. Eventually he changed his opinion and became an evolutionist. Jordan died in 1931. Had he lived a few more decades, do you think he would have still hung on to his belief in eugenics?

Stripping their names from these buildings would give short shrift to their sizable academic achievements outside of eugenics.

Blaming Frederick Terman

Removing the name Terman from the middle school on Arastradero Road would have an unfortunate side effect. Many people believe the school is named after Lewis Terman’s son, Frederick Terman (1900-1982), the Stanford electrical engineering professor who is regarded as the father of Silicon Valley, along with fellow Stanford professor William Shockley. Frederick Terman, who had many accomplishments in technology, was the teacher of students such as Russell and Sigurd Varian and Bill Hewlett and David Packard.

The school board-appointed committee recommending the removal of the three names admits that there’s no evidence that Frederick Terman ever publicly advocated eugenics like his father did, but it still wants to banish the name Terman anyway.

Out of context

It seems to me that this committee is taking the lives of these men out of context by a century. If these three were around today, I doubt they would have views that the committee would find unacceptable.

(By the way, Cubberley was once a high school but today is a community center. It is still partially controlled by the school district, and the committee is recommending renaming it if it were to become a school again.)

Why now?

This idea of renaming schools began with a Jordan Middle School student’s research project on the namesake of his school. That led to a petition drive, which caused the school board to appoint a committee to investigate which school names might be offensive. Prior to the student’s research project in 2015, there wasn’t any talk about renaming the schools. Nobody was offended.

Two of the three schools — Terman and Cubberley — opened after World War II when eugenics had been discredited. Oddly, nobody brought it up when they were opened.

Why the outrage today? The committee tries to make the case that there’s more information about eugenics today than there was in the past. That’s true, but eugenics was never a secret, and the argument against these three men is that they publicly promoted eugenics. The information that has fueled this dispute has always been in the public domain.

And it’s easy to attack the legacy of dead people because they can’t defend themselves.

By getting rid of these names, we will trash the history of thousands of former students. Their happy memories of being Terman Tigers, Jordan Jaguars or Cubberley Cougars will go up in smoke.

Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays in the Daily Post. His email address is price@padailypost.com.