May 6, 2021

Defending Benjamin Franklin, Round Four

It now seems inevitable that the building housing Benjamin Franklin High School, from which I graduated in 1964, will be renamed by the Orleans Parish School Board. (See my posts about the NOLA Public Schools Facility Renaming Initiative here, here, and here.) My classmates and I have been trying to head off the name change and discourage altering the name of the charter school itself. (Franklin was once a public school housed in the old Carrolton Courthouse. It is now a charter school in a modern building designed as a high school.) We have been making the case that Benjamin Franklin, despite having once owned slaves, is nonetheless someone whose name can proudly be attached to a college prep high school.

I have not addressed the nature of the NOLA Public Schools Facility Renaming Initiative itself. A classmate, Thomas J. Wagner, has done so, and, with his permission, I am reproducing his letter to the editor of The Advocate that he titled “New Orleans Public School Board Flawed Standard for Facility Naming.” Although this letter addresses the situation in New Orleans, its principles are sound and should be applied in other circumstances where the names of public assets are being reconsidered. (Note that I added a link to the Isaacson essay referred to in the first line.)


Two weeks ago, the Advocate published Walter Isaacson’s clear and compelling defense for retaining Benjamin Franklin as the name of two New Orleans public schools. Mr. Isaacson forcefully argues that this decision should be based upon the “moral arc of [Franklin’s] life and his [lifelong] quest for improvement.” No one can credibly gainsay Mr. Isaacson’s defense of Franklin nor justify the removal of Franklin’s name in light of his overwhelming accomplishments and contributions to our country and to mankind at large. 

The Board’s misjudgment in calling for the removal of Franklin’s name stems from its flawed negative standard: “The School Board is fundamentally opposed to retaining names of school facilities for persons who were slave owners, Confederate officials, and segregation supporters.”

This negative standard dispositively eliminates naming facilities for numerous honorable and worthy persons whose lives and careers have contributed immensely to our community, city, state, nation, and beyond. This flawed standard requires a myopic focus on the negative to the exclusion of the positive. It limits decisions regarding naming and renaming as a choice among a list of “who is left?’ after disposing of the names of many greater and more honorable persons.

Ever worse, this negative standard is extremely divisive. The current standard focuses on racial issues, and nothing else. Others can rightfully argue for eliminating persons on the basis of other failures, flaws, and faults, such as issues involving gender, sexuality, abortion, anti-abortion, spousal and child abuse, non-support, perjury for profit, and so forth. 

Instead of this negative approach, Mr. Isaacson’s comments should guide the School Board to set a positive standard, focusing upon a person’s entire life while allowing consideration of those negative aspects that are relevant to the institution, community, country, and beyond. Such a focus is most appropriate for the School Board as it is better grounded in the truths and realities of human imperfection while recognizing the betterment of individuals and mankind through education, experience, and understanding. 

Thomas J. Wagner
Franklin alum, 1964

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