Recently the Burbank Unified school board unanimously approved a committee’s recommendation to remove the name of David Starr Jordan from a middle school in the district.
Jordan, who was born in 1851 and lived 80 years, was a longtime president of Stanford, directed the Sierra Club for a decade, was a noted ichthyologist and led the World Peace Foundation in his later years.
He also shared with Theodore Roosevelt, Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger and Adolf Hitler a belief in eugenics — the now discredited science of improving the genetic quality of humans through selective breeding. His advocacy of forced sterilization to reduce so-called undesirable traits influenced eugenics policies in California and other states.
Members of the Burbank Unified district-naming committee argued that despite his ostensible efforts to improve humanity, Jordan’s promotion of eugenics was based on ideas offensive to many Americans today. Others suggest his views were more complex and evolved over time: He invited the leader of the Bahá’í faith to speak about prejudice at Stanford in 1912, for example, and acted on behalf of the defense during the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in 1925.
Q. What do you think of renaming Jordan Middle School for the reasons the district has cited? Do the beliefs he held, however widespread at the time, outweigh his other accomplishments?
To remain true to the nature of this column I’ll address this question in the context of my faith. In Scripture a name often identified a personality trait or physical quality of a person. For example, Jacob’s brother was named “Esau” which means “hairy.” Schools are named for people whose positive traits should be emulated, as was no doubt originally the case with Jordan Middle School. But if the namesake’s negative traits overshadow the positive in the eyes of a particular generation then it’s probably prudent to find another name. Eugenics certainly qualifies as negative, to say the least. We must keep in mind, of course, that any human selected will have negative as well as positive qualities. In an absolute sense Romans 3:10 reminds us that among humanity: “There is none righteous, not even one.” Every human held up as a positive example has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory, with the exception of our Lord Jesus Christ. So in an imperfect world filled with imperfect people we’re forced to select namesakes whose good outweighs the bad — in our own imperfect estimation.
In scripture when Egypt and Babylon ruled Israel the foreign conquerors changed the names of their Hebrew vassal kings. The power to change another’s name exhibits one’s authority over them. To address the case in discussion, or any future ones, this authority would be rightly exercised by the school board if it’s done strictly for the betterment of the students and the community, and not for the sake of the board members’ personal political preference. This generation has seen enough historical revisionism to not cast a wary eye on any further attempts at it. A prime example of this is those who wish to clear the historical record of America’s strong moral foundation in the Christian faith.
On occasion even God changed people’s names as a confirmation of an inward change in them. In Genesis 17:5 God changed Abram’s name (“Exalted Father”) to Abraham (“Father of a Multitude”). In Genesis 32:28 He changed Jacob’s name (“Deceiver”) to Israel (“God’s Fighter”). In John 1:42 Jesus changed Simon the son of John’s name (“God Has Heard”) to Peter (“rock” or “stone”). “Christians” are honored to bear the name of Christ.
Which new name will the school board choose? Time will tell. But God has already chosen one name to eternally stand above all others: the name of Jesus Christ. “God highly exalted him, and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).
Pastor Jon Barta
It seems that the popular thing these days is to tear down monuments of yesteryear, no matter how approved they were in their time, and replace them with others of contemporary morality and more currently favored populations. Perhaps it’s the right thing to do, maybe not. I think this school named for the fellow in question has all the right in the world to call themselves by whatever nomenclature suits them, and if somebody else inspires their students today more than the previously honored celebrity, so be it. This does remind me of something that Jesus said though, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Mat 6:19-20). We have recently witnessed statues, flags and other representations of the past being tossed away, torn down, reinterpreted and historically demonized, and I think it’s all a fine example of what Jesus was talking about. Whether a person gets their name on a highway, has a bust fashioned for the park, or leaves their image woven into the logo of an educational institution, it can rust, be trashed, tossed, maligned, desecrated and erased. Every generation loses track of its past if it doesn’t revisit, and I worry that the Father of His Country [George Washington] and other stalwarts will soon be torn down and replaced with rebels, weirdos and sundry unworthy mentionables. It all goes to show me as a Christian that “This world is not my home” and my goal should not be to get my name in lights or a star on the Walk of Fame, but to honor God and please him only.
With regard to David Starr Jordan, I think he had his finger in quite a few questionable things besides eugenics, and I wonder who voted for his honor in the first place. Whoever replaces him is still going to be a sinner, because they will be human, so time will tell if their earthly glory might also one day be reversed. We should be very careful who we put on pedestals, and if they don’t reflect godly sensibilities, my two cents advocate don’t.
Rev. Bryan A. Griem, MA, MDiv
The decision to rename Burbank’s David Starr Jordan Middle School exemplified democracy in action. A unanimous vote by those elected to represent residents’ educational interests followed substantial public input and discussion. I think the people spoke and the leaders listened. What’s not to like?
Mr. Jordan’s accomplishments, beliefs and errors remain intact in the historic record. The irony is that there is now concern that this ages’ advances in DNA testing and manipulation amounts to a new eugenics, with a scientific gloss.
“O tempora o mores” or to translate long-dead Cicero with punctuation nonexistent in Latin: “Oh the times! Oh the customs!”