The Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education is investigating whether to alter the name of David Starr Jordan Middle School after a parent’s petition urged such a change and Social Justice Pathway students discussed the name at a board meeting on Feb. 9. David Starr Jordan, a vocal eugenicist, or a person who supports improving the genetic population of humans through inhumane methods, was also Stanford University’s first president, a peace activist and ichthyologist. While some may claim that changing the school’s name promotes a more welcoming environment, the school board should not do so as this would not properly address contemporary racism. In addition, eugenics was considered acceptable in much of the 19th and 20th centuries despite being discredited today, and a name change would cause confusion among community members and waste District funds.
First of all, a name change would not make the middle school a more welcoming environment for students as it would not properly address racism in our schools and in general. As the son of a Polish father and Mexican mother, I know my ancestors have faced racism and anti-religious sentiment firsthand. David Starr Jordan himself wrote that Poles were “controlled by … animal instincts” and Mexicans “ignorant and “superstitious.” But although my ancestors and ethnic groups have been victimized in the past, even through ethnic cleansing and other means, I do not believe changing Jordan’s name is the proper way to address contemporary racism. Altering Jordan’s name would not have made any difference in my three-year experience as a Jordan student, nor did it make me feel marginalized or persecuted in any way.
If the district wishes to address modern racism, it should not focus on Jordan Middle School’s name, but rather acknowledge social injustice and discrimination in America in social studies classes or through cultural clubs. After all, Jordan’s views of eugenics have been mostly discredited and bear little significance in the modern world. Changing the school’s name would not address injustice; it would simply put a bandage on a deep cut. The change will not suddenly transform the district into an open-minded community. Teachers and staff should encourage cultural clubs to provide an in-depth look into social justice rather than bring attention to a name that many are unaware about if they wish to make schools more welcoming.
One may say that the district can both change the name and acknowledge social injustice in schools. While this is true, there are other and more effective ways to make students feel welcome rather than changing Jordan’s name. Administration can use funds that may otherwise go to repainting the school to crack down on bullying and fund cultural programs, both of which are more likely to successfully promote tolerance and unity.
While it is terrible that David Starr Jordan fostered racist ideologies, he should not just be recognized as a eugenicist when he also promoted pacifism and contributed to the field of science. America’s fourth president, Thomas Jefferson, is revered as a hero despite owning over 600 slaves. Similarly, Jordan should not be edited out of our history due to some of his views which while inhumane, were standard in the late 19th century. It must be noted that at its peak, eugenics was supported by W.E.B Dubois, Theodore Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, all of whom are considered heroes in today’s society. This does not mean that Jordan should be excused for his views, as they promoted racism in the 20th century. Rather, we should look at his views in context and acknowledge that what is considered racist today was seen as standard 80 years ago.
According to American historian and biographer Garland E. Allen, David Starr Jordan’s views were considered common in his time.
“Eugenics … was a widespread and popular movement in the United States and Europe between 1910 and 1940,” Garland wrote. “Eugenics gained much support from progressive reform thinkers, who sought to plan social development using expert knowledge in both the social and natural sciences.”
Changing a school’s name because some find it offensive may also set a dangerous precedent. Basically every influential figure has been subject to some form of controversy, regardless of the nobility of their deeds. If we wished to avoid offending all Palo Altans, we would need to rename schools to streets, plants or locations.
A name change would foster additional consequences. Administration would most likely paint over all Jordan Middle School logos and alter all paperwork referring to the school as “Jordan,” costing the district an unknown amount of money which could be better spent on new textbooks or educational facilities. The change could also cause confusion among citizens who are unaware of the name replacement.
Despite the name change’s potential negative effects, some students continue to advocate for such a modification. Social Justice Pathway student and junior Layla Solatan says she believes it would help create a more welcoming environment.
“Now that people have shown such passion for changing the name, to ignore their pleas would do harm to the image, values and environment of the district,” Solatan said.
However, a majority of students do not believe the name has a significant impact on them. The Voice visited random Paly English classrooms and posted a survey in the class Facebook groups to see how students felt about such a change. Of the 219 netted responses, only 28.8 percent of students believe the current name creates an unhealthy environment for students, and 40.6 percent support an actual name change. 68.5 percent of those who responded attended Jordan Middle School. These results demonstrate how, despite a vehement minority of students urging for a name change, these students do not represent their peers’ views as a whole.
School board member Melissa Baten Caswell says that while changing the name could set a positive example of upstanding, it also could cause multiple community problems.
“There will be expenses involved with changing the name,” Caswell said. “Some members of the community are attached to the existing name.”
When the school board’s advisory committee reaches a conclusion on the name’s effects later this year, we should definitely listen and take into account their research and advice. However, at this point in time, a Jordan name change is completely unnecessary. Further discussions about promoting tolerance in Palo Alto schools are important and will help to create a healthier, more open-minded community—but a Jordan name change is not the solution.