Editors Note: Today and tomorrow ActiveHistory.ca offers two perspectives on the recent controversy that erupted in Halifax over the renaming of Cornwallis Junior High School.
By Paul W. Bennett, Schoolhouse Consulting
You cannot get more American than George Washington, the President who adorns the One Dollar bill emblazoned with “In God We Trust.” Yet in 1992 he came under attack when the parents and staff at a New Orleans school succeeded in replacing his name with that of Dr. Charles Drew, a noted black physician. The decision stemmed from a controversial Board policy calling for the renaming of all schools named after former slave owners or others who did not respect “equal opportunity for all.”
The American renaming schools controversy spread quickly to other cities and towns. Across the United States there were then 450 schools named for George Washington, including George Washington University in D.C. Hundreds of other schools were identified because they were named after American presidents who owned slaves, such as Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and George Mason.
That old controversy is now back in the Canadian education news. Removing the name of Halifax’s founder, Edward Cornwallis, from the masthead of a South End junior high school is perhaps the most recent and blatant example. The case against Cornwallis hangs on the fact that he issued a 1749 proclamation putting a bounty on the scalps of Mi’kmaq men, women, and children.
Renaming schools to defrock former historical notables opens up a ‘Pandora’s Box’ and has sparked controversies in many school districts. Social justice advocates and special interest groups are usually the instigators and the “sanitizers” all claim to be “correcting past wrongs.” Charges of racism, genocide, and inhuman cruelty are heaped upon the dead and are too often simply accepted without much scrutiny.
Critics of name changing initiatives are right to raise objections. History is a “contested terrain” and in removing names we are denying today’s students an opportunity to engage in such discussions. Exposing students to the conflict of ideas and interpretation lies at the very core of civic education.
Renaming Cornwallis JHS has stirred up a hornet’s nest in Canadian education. Charges that Cornwallis practiced “genocide” and crude comparisons to Hitler’s “extermination of Europe’s Jews” are extremist views that have generated far more heat than light.
Settling and defending Halifax was part of a European 18th century “conquest” of the Americas, but Cornwallis’s actions were not appreciably different those of other governors who offered “scalp bounties” and committed atrocities in times of colonial frontier warfare. Many historians also strongly object to judging historic figures by today’s standards or from one rather narrow viewpoint.
The local movement to “kill” Cornwallis rests upon claims made in Daniel M. Paul’s 1993 book We are Not the Savages and enjoys little support among North American historians. Halifax’s founder has been lauded for his choice of the Citadel Hill site, organizing the first government, and setting up a courts system modelled after Virginia. Such achievements mean little to the Halifax school sanitizers.
The Mi’kmaq claim is also not supported in the most recent scholarly study of the period, John E. Grenier’s 2008 book The Far Reaches of Empire: War in Nova Scotia, 1710-1760. In it, Cornwallis is depicted as a British colonial official who used “brutal but effective measures” to “ wrest control of Nova Scotia from French and Indian enemies who were no less ruthless.”
Basing public policy on re-writing history can only lead to further social injustices. The distinguished Canadian historian J. L. Granatstein put it best: “You can’t apply today’s standards to people in the past. That just gets silly.”
Eradicating the names of historical figures, however well-intended, sets a dangerous precedent. Yet challenging the school sanitizers puts you at risk of being dismissed as a reactionary or perhaps a closet sympathizer with “dead white males.” School boards, local parents and the public are, rather regrettably, reluctant to raise a fuss and are inclined to accept the “demonization” of historical figures at face value.
Renaming schools for reasons of ‘political correctness’ has got to stop. If we continue to sanitize school names, where will it end? Surely we already have enough interchangeable “No-Name” brand schools in the ‘one-size-fits-all school’ system.
Paul W. Bennett is Founding Director, Schoolhouse Consulting, Halifax, and the author of Vanishing Schools, Threatened Communities: The Contested Schoolhouse in Maritime Canada, 1850-2010 (2011)
For more information about Edward Cornwallis and the renaming of Cornwallis Junior High see:
Here’s a short list of historians who have written on some of the issues at stake:
John Grenier, The Far Reaches of Empire
Daniel N. Paul, We Were Not the Savages
Geoffrey Plank, An Unsettled Conquest
John G. Reid, Essays on Northeastern North America
William C. Wicken, Mi’kmaq Treaties on Trial
William C. Wicken, The Colonization of Mi’kmaw Memory and History, 1794-1928