Renaming Schools: When The Right Decision Feels Toxic 

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This morning a tip came across my desk about yet another school being hastily renamed, this time in Anne Arundel County, MD.  George Fox Middle School, located in Pasadena MD, has stood for 72 years. Its namesake, George Fox, served as superintendent of the district between 1916 and 1946. According to a release from the school, a decision was made on March 17th to rename the school due to concern about comments attributed to Fox during a 1939 court case. Fox, the records show, opposed equal pay for black and white teachers, even as other surrounding districts abandoned their policy of separate pay scales for black and white teachers. 

Concerns about Fox’s comments first surfaced in July of 2020 when community members first approached the board about a name change, at which time a panel was put in place to discuss the possibility. The district plans to hold a community vote on name options in mid-April. 

Stories like this pose a genuine ethical challenge for conservatives. Absent the vat of acidic wokeness that we are all currently marinating in, many of us would be sympathetic to the name change in this particular case, even if we ourselves have deep reservations about name-changing in general. The namesake, in this case, does not appear to have a tremendously meaningful legacy to present day students which might outweigh his moral foibles, and the grievance itself is not insignificant. Further, it appears the district has approached this situation with at least slightly more temperance than we’ve seen thus far from many other districts, taking at least 8 months to contemplate the decision. Under different circumstances, this name change would be relatively uncontroversial. Graceful even. 

And yet we bristle. For good reason.

Given the present context, that our society is perilously suspended in an acidic goo that ravenously erodes all relics of the past, name changes take on a new and urgent significance. In this gooey context, a name change of this nature, even with significant justification, cannot help but carry a certain cowardly stench; that of desperation, acquiescence, and shame. Like Lady Macbeth desperately washing her hands, a too-hasty rush to jettison our past seems to concede the toxic and insidious lie: that guilt by association (even an association as loose as preferring to keep the name of a 72-year-old school named after a flawed man) is morally legitimate. It is not. 

This particular case is morally complex. The name change, in one respect, represents a moral step forward. It affirms our deeply held beliefs in the equality and dignity of every human, something George Fox failed to do. However, the lingering sense that the name change may, in part, be spurred by goo-induced guilt and shame, represents a profound moral problem. In acquiescing to the corrosive environment, we end up, ironically, committing nearly the same crime as poor dead George Fox: being blindly or fearfully complicit in the immorality of our own age. George Fox was trapped in the hateful goo of his age, and likewise so are we. 

This time, however, the hateful goo we find ourselves suspended in is self-hate. Self hate, today, is as fashionable as anti-black hate was in George Fox’s day, and like all hate, it’s toxic. It manifests as the urge to hate our history, ourselves, and to hate others who happen to be born with the wrong skin color, all in pursuit of a perverse promise of redemption. Like all fashionable forms of hate, it masquerades as virtue. 

To acquiesce to this particular form of hate, through radical erasure of the past and demonization of those who revere it, is to deny the unifying complexity of humanity. We honor that complexity by acknowledging deeply that every one of us is a composite of good and evil, and that each of us is trapped, morally, in our own moment in time. To erase people like George Fox is to risk erasing that lesson. 

Ultimately, given the historical facts of which I am aware, I would, theoretically, support a name change for this particular school. Despite my distaste for re-naming things, this seems like a case where a more inspiring name may be suitable. However, I would only support it under the following careful considerations, which I do not believe are met. 

First, that no person in the school community should feel ashamed to voice their true opinion. Second, that legitimate and respectful consideration be given to the merits of keeping the name, including the 72-year legacy, as well as any relevant leadership contributions of the namesake. Third, that the ultimate decision as to whether to change the name, and what to, be made with grace, temperance, and be totally devoid of haste. In other words, I am open to, and eager even, for graceful moral progress in an open and tolerant society. However, I reject ersatz progress, coercively obtained, under a false moral banner. 

The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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