In defense of history

St. Paul’s Webster Magnet Elementary School changed its name last month to the Barack and Michelle Obama Service Learning Elementary. What’s wrong with that? Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editor David Shribman makes an impassioned plea on behalf of the school’s namesake:

Webster was the greatest orator in the age of great oratory; some of his words remain in the American memory, even in this ahistorical age. He was probably the most eminent Supreme Court lawyer in American history, having argued 249 cases before the court, including several of the landmark cases of the early 19th century that shaped constitutional law in the United States for generations. And he was one of the greatest secretaries of state ever (and the first to serve non-consecutive terms, one under William Henry Harrison and John Tyler, another under Millard Fillmore).

“He achieved great distinction,” says Kenneth E. Shewmaker, editor of the “Diplomatic Papers of Daniel Webster.” “Barack Obama may have greater distinction because he had the chance to be president. A senator doesn’t have that kind of power, but if we understand his legacy, including his role in creating the sense of American nationalism, we wouldn’t wipe Webster’s name off our buildings.”

After pleading Webster’s case, Shribman makes the larger case for the preservation of historical memory:

Changing the name of a school from Webster to Obama is a symptom of a larger problem in American life.

“The kind of present-mindedness that wipes out historical knowledge is a cultural fault of American society,” says Hyman Berman, an emeritus history professor at the University of Minnesota. Alan Berolzheimer, a Norwich, Vt., historian who as a young man worked on cataloging and publishing the “Webster Papers,” adds: “You don’t make light of a long-standing historical figure whom a community honored in the first place.”

Americans like to name schools after political figures. In Minnesota, there is an elementary school in St. Paul and a high school in Minneapolis named for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash while running for re-election in 2002. The University of Minnesota has the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, named for the mayor, senator and vice president who is the state’s greatest historical figure. And the University of Minnesota Law School is housed in Walter F. Mondale Hall, named for the former senator and vice president. Mondale is very much alive.

“There should be room for Daniel Webster on our schools,” says Mondale, who is 81. “He would want it that way, and he deserves a place. And though I know names can go up and they can go down, let’s leave Mondale Hall alone for a while.”

In working on the column, Shribman found the powers-that-be at Webster Magnet School present a case study in historical amnesia:

There is no trace at all of Webster in the Obama Service Learning Elementary school today, not even a picture of Webster, who may have been the subject of more formal portraits of any man of his time, if not of all American history. Indeed, in the period leading up to the vote on the name change, the principal of the school, Lori Simon, actually had to figure out for whom the school was named originally.

If Webster had been remembered at the school, I am quite certain that what was “remembered” would have been wrong. Such is certainly the case with what high school students are taught, for example, about Lincoln, when they are taught anything at all.

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