Reflections on the intersection of economics, history, politics, psychology and science

The Problem with Naming

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”

William Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet
Author’s Note: This article was originally written and published in EdSource in January 2014. The school district did pass a policy prohibiting naming school facilities after individuals, and the new schools subsequently built were named Arroyo and Mariposa, the Spanish words for creek and butterfly, respectively.

When I was a teenager growing up in New Jersey, we were so excited that a new indoor sports arena was being built at the Meadowlands, next to Giants Stadium. This arena would be the future home of the New Jersey Devils (hockey) and New Jersey Nets (basketball). It was opened as the Brendan Byrne Arena. Who was Brendan Byrne? He was actually the sitting governor of the state at the time! I was more than disillusioned in politics as we appeared to be witnessing the audacity of a governor who would name an arena after himself (no matter how instrumental he was in getting the project completed). Over more than three decades, I haven’t shaken this befuddlement. Admittedly, this instance was probably one of the more egregious examples of “naming politics” at work — but this same issue has come up over and over again all over this country, for buildings, airports, parks, bridges, and even schools. I never really thought I would have the opportunity to do anything about it…until very recently.

In our school district we are about to start building two new schools, and inevitably came up the subject of what to name the schools. After thirty-plus years of scratching my head about this heretofore theoretical question, it was now our problem. Naming schools is a once-in-a-generation opportunity (if even that often), so how do we choose? Everyone involved in public schooling recognizes that it takes thousands and thousands of people to make a school district successful. Who among us would deserve such an honor to have his or her name permanently plastered on the front of the building? If we believe that it really takes a village, there isn’t anyone whose service can stand out over tens of thousands of others. Everyone’s name deserves to be on that door. So, the answer must be that no one’s name be there.

Then someone naturally suggested if you can’t pick someone from our community, why don’t we name a school after an historical figure? My own wife even suggested that we pick Nelson Mandela. Although it’s hard not to be a huge Mandela fan, that pick — like any that of any other historical figure — would border on the trite and meaningless. Should we pick Nelson Mandela because he just died? How about Martin Luther King? How about Ghandi? Washington? Jefferson? Lincoln? We could likely rationalize any such pick after the fact by choosing a set of attributes from the honored person and connecting those to the mission of the school, but does that have true meaning? At worst, it becomes just another political exercise which would create public tension over something that effectively has little meaning. I felt like we should reserve community consternation for the real issues (of which there are many) rather than creating ones that aren’t necessary. It’s all downside with little upside.

After an initial discussion among our board members, we directed the Superintendent to pull together an ad hoc committee of parents, faculty, and others to discuss the issue. Interestingly, we had a fairly strong consensus among these committee members as well as school board members to have a policy prohibiting us from naming a school (or other significant school facilities) after people, living or dead. This perspective is consistent with the notion that naming a major facility (school or otherwise) after a person is actually an exercise in exclusion, not inclusion, and therefore not consistent with our values.

It seemed like most of our board members felt like they could not in good conscience pick someone to honor above everyone else. Even if we tried, it would be an exercise in adults picking other favorite adults with our choices likely biased to coincident timing more than anything else. Do we pick the last school leader who retired, or passed away? Do we pick someone famous who came from our town? Inherently, there is no way one could meaningfully and objectively judge. Therefore, the process becomes inherently political, and even more importantly none of this has to do with furthering the educational experience of our children. As I’ve written before, school boards more than any other political body have the freedom to not act as one would expect of politicians.

Notwithstanding our board’s consensus on this overall policy of prohibition around naming facilities after people, we did have an interesting discussion over the concept of “naming rights,” i.e. the idea (however extremely unlikely in our case) that some wealthy benefactor could donate a significant amount of money and hope to have a name on a building. Although we largely agreed we wouldn’t want to “sell” the name of a school itself, we were split on the notion of allowing that for other facilities (e.g. gymnasiums, theaters, libraries, etc.). Personally, I felt that if a donation (from a person or company) were so significant as to create a facility or program that otherwise wouldn’t exist in that form while preserving equity across the district, then we will have served children by accepting such a donation. Of course, every community and school board will likely have different standards as to both what is “significant” as well as what maintains consistency with their values (e.g. it’s hard to imagine a school taking money from companies that sell tobacco or alcohol). We recognized that in our little town, this discussion was probably academic given the infinitesimal likelihood of being faced with such a dilemma.

I recognize that a policy against naming facilities after people would go against a very long tradition in government, but our own experience locally has allowed us to realize this is yet another opportunity for school boards to rise above the fray of politics and do something really meaningful. I don’t know what the right names for our new schools are, but I am looking forward to an inclusive process where we bring in students, staff, parents, and other community members to brainstorm ones that are relevant for us.