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James Madison Memorial School Name Should NOT Change In Madison, Wisconsin

May 26, 2017

While watching a local news story about an attempt by a small group to remove James Madison’s name from a city school I thought of a quote from Harry Truman.  “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.”

This all stems from an assignment in a social justice class to create change in the community and so senior student, Mya Berry, thought it best to work to change the school’s name.  The reason, she claims, is due to James Madison being a slaveholder. The high school has been named James Madison Memorial since it was established in 1966.

What stunned me about the story–other than her motive allows for a most incomplete assessment of Madison by gauging his totality using only one part of his past–is the stated lack of knowledge about the fourth President of the United States.

“Not a lot of people know who James Madison is, and there’s already disparity, there’s already an education gap between white and black students,” Berry said. “Why add on to that with having a school named after a slave owner?”  She then added, “there’s also a Thomas Jefferson Middle School right next door. He was also a slave owner, so maybe that one can be the next one,”

Should I surmise that her fellow students are also unaware of who Jefferson was and what he accomplished? Might I also assume they are not aware that of the 55 members of the Constitutional Convention, nearly 50% of them either owned slaves or in some capacity helped allow for the trade.  I simply was shocked at the level of inability to reason this matter out concerning the Founding Fathers and the issues of slavery.

There is a serious question about the lack of success in our educational system if there are students in high school who are not aware of who Madison was and what he contributed to the nation. Might it not be a better community project for Berry to attempt in some way to make sure teachers are better able to impart needed lessons to students, and the young minds better prepared to sit down, pay attention, and learn?

Before I venture further on this topic let me make it clear that slavery was a most wretched and immoral stain on our nation’s past.  There is no way to condone it.  And it seems silly to even need to acknowledge that in this post,. But the discourse that Berry brought to the news story makes such a point on my part needed.  We are, seemingly, at that level.  Let me also make clear there is a huge difference between the name of Jefferson Davis on a public building or the flying of the confederate flag as opposed to the name of James Madison placed on a city school.

Slavery was the most contradictory aspect of the American revolutionary era.   How to secure a new nation with some firm foundations and not splinter apart based on sectional tensions was the required goal.  That is not a glib way to move past the slavery issue, but instead is just hard, and admittedly, tough facts.  From George Washington, to Jefferson, and Madison it was not lost on them that this matter was a huge American anomaly.  History also shows that though the path was long justice was administered by President Lincoln.

I have long felt that there are attempts, some more pronounced than others, to downgrade or undermine the importance and historical relevance of Western civilization.  The move by some to act for the removal of  Madison and perhaps even Jefferson from our school names is but perhaps the latest attempts to be found in this city.

I have always found it useful to view history from the perspective of those who lived it and seek to find the points of view they had based on their realities.   As such when thinking about ancient Greece the names of Plato and Aristotle come to mind and all recognize them–minus the students in our local schools–as great philosophers.  If one were to study these men it becomes clear that Western (there is that bad word again) philosophy and even Christian theology would be inconceivable without those two.  But let us not forget that Plato’s Republic included slaves and Aristotle articulated a defense of “natural slavery” which meant when boiled down that enslavement of those who by nature were suited to be slaves was acceptable.

I do not wish to come across as too snarky when it comes to Berry.  She had an assignment and seems to be doing it.  I wish her instructor might have been more able to educate students about their projects and therefore allow the outcomes to be more factually useful.   As it turned out the only outcome was one more painful indictment of the current path our public schools are taking.

My next concern–based on this news story–is who will be the first to wish to blast a face off Mount Rushmore?

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