Renaming Schools: What Does Sanitizing History Teach Students?

Editors Note: Today and tomorrow 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:

The story has been covered in the National Post, The CoastThe Chronicle-Herald as well as over the radio and television waves.

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

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7 thoughts on “Renaming Schools: What Does Sanitizing History Teach Students?

  1. Jonathan Dresner

    Reposted from Twitter:

    Bennett’s position seems almost as essentialist as the “one strike” revisionists: things named as honors aren’t sacred, permanent memorials. There’s a good case, IMO, for renaming things when the historical figures honored no longer have an honorable place in our history. Should be a balance: someone who was productive, creative, but flawed in ways typical of the time, deserves reconsideration, discussion. That discussion could, indeed, be a good model for students: considering the context, coming to a consensus, investigating long-term effects.

  2. Rebecca Strung

    My Alma matter was named after WWI Field Marshal Earl Douglas Haig. Haig was originally a celebrated war hero, but critics now hold him responsible for the huge loss of life at the Battle of the Somme (600,000 Allied soldiers perished in the pursuit of 10 miles of land). The controversy surrounding Earl Haig was well known when I attended Earl Haig SS in the 1990s. Although some students were uncomfortable with the glorification of Haig, the school’s name provided an excellent starting point for discussions about war and memory, public commemoration, and how historical understandings change over time. I recall lively discussions in my grade 10 history class about whether either of Haig’s reputations were deserved and why a school might be named for such a controversial figure in the first place. These discussions were one of the things that first sparked my enduring interest in war and memory.

  3. Mark

    Mr Bennet has great success in taking apart his interlocutors’ weakest arguments on history while ignoring what I feel are stronger ones of society: whatever sort of relatavistic excuses one invents for Cornwallis does not change the fact that he has become a symbol of brutality against an entire people, and if we intend respect one another in a pluralistic country there is no reason why we need honour those like Cornwallis that have little meaning for the majority but are quite noxious to a significant minority. The defenses marshaled here give it away: he was no worse than others of his time, but he really wasn’t any better, either. Surely we can demand more than that of those we choose to honour in this way.

  4. Jonathan Dresner

    Just to be clear, Mark, I’m not defending or excusing Cornwallis: I’m talking about process. But if Mr. Bennett is right about the poor sourcing of the scalping accusations, then Cornwallis’ status as “a symbol of brutality” is no more relevant that Columbus’ mythical status as a symbol of someone who boldly challenged flat-earth thinking.

  5. Mark

    Hi Jonathan,
    My reading of Bennet’s argument was not that Cornwallis didn’t order scalpings (I think his order on that is historical record), but that in doing so he was no worse than others of his time and was not aiming for genocide, as claimed by Paul. Which is legitimate, as far as a historical judgement goes, but putting myself in the shoes of a Mi’kmak, I can’t imagine entertaining much sympathy for the idea that ordering the indiscriminate killings of my ancestors wasn’t so bad because other people’s ancestors were similarly massacred elsewhere.
    I get the impression that you and I are in broad agreement: the naming of a school is a honour, and those to whom those honours go should reflect what we value as society. Mr Bennet’s article is about the historic context, which is related, but not the crux of the argument.

  6. Daniel N. Paul

    I’ve read Bennett’s opinion over twice and have come to the same conclusion twice: absolute Eurocentric white supremacist garbage. Stealing another’s property and using barbarism to accomplish the deed does not a hero make! The following by the Honourable Joseph Howe puts it into perspective best:

    “…The Indians who scalped your forefathers were open enemies, and had good reason for what they did. They were fighting for their country, which they loved, as we have loved it in these latter years. It was a wilderness. There was perhaps not a square mile of cultivation, or a road or a bridge anywhere. But it was their home, and what God in His bounty had given them they defended like brave and true men. They fought the old pioneers of our civilization for a hundred and thirty years, and during all that time they were true to each other and to their country, wilderness though it was…”

  7. Beto

    Junipero Serra, I could go for that. But if I were one of the deserving ones, asleep under the sod, I would be loath to receive accolades in such an hellish atmosphere. I would say, thanks come back when everyone isn’t screaming at each other. To those who would tear down a statue of Ulysses Grant only to install another, of somebody else, it reminds me of Caligula knocking off the heads of all the gods on Rome, only to replace them with those of his own likeness.

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