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Is it time to quit naming public structures for people?

The Ashland School Board has jumped into the on-going controversy regarding whether we should view historical figures with our 21st century sensibilities. (In this case it is whether or not to re-name John Muir Outdoor School.) It just seems irresistible and reasonable to apply our contemporary moral judgments to those past heroes of 19th and 20th century America. After all, history is constantly re-interpreted as each succeeding generation looks to the past.

But wait: Numerous academic historians might frown on this “presentism” approach. As Gordon Wood, Joseph Ellis and David McCullough are fond of reminding us, those who lived in the past really lived not only in a different time, but essentially in a country that would be completely foreign to us. As novelist L.P. Hartley put it, ‘’The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” No one in the past knew what the future would hold, nor do we. The vast majority were products of their times living by different norms.

So, how do we decide who deserves to be memorialized? Maybe we shouldn’t. Let’s face it, we have a difficult history, complete with the “original sins” of slavery and the attempted extinction of native inhabitants. Maybe we just need to quit naming public things after people.

Viewed from narrow prisms, can anyone escape the ongoing re-examination of history and come out unscathed? Enshrining historical heroes is “a slippery slope” at best.

However, if we still insist on naming schools and such after historic figures, we need to seek the outliers, those who displayed great courage and broke with the conventions of their day. Surprisingly, there are ample examples of 2021 sensibilities in late 19th and 20th century America. We just need to bring these individuals and groups to the forefront of our teaching and learning about the past.

A local example is John Beeson (1803- 1889) of nearby Talent. Beeson, an English-born, naturalized American settler, paid an enormous personal price for his opposition to the treatment of native inhabitants in Southern Oregon.

Attacked for his speeches and writings defending the rights of native people, Beeson was forced to flee his farm and family for much of his adult life to avoid bodily harm. As publisher Bert Webber has maintained, John Beeson may be Oregon’s first civil rights advocate.

How would I vote sitting here in my comfortably removed armchair? Probably for “Ashland Outdoor School.” Yet, having said that, we really do need to do a far better job of teaching about outliers such as John Beeson in our history instruction and research. Putting their names on buildings, though, maybe not.

Joe Peterson lives in Ashland.