Archive for March, 2017

What’s in a name?

Saturday, March 18th, 2017

The Palo Alto School Board voted this week to rename two or our our schools:

Both Jordan and Terman had been prominent in the eugenics movement, and the movement to rename the schools was launched by a parent, after his seventh-grade student at Jordan Middle School wrote a book report on Jordan’s involvement.

This brought to mind the commencement address given by the famous astronomer Carl Sagan at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1975.  Sagan talked about the ephemeral nature of academic disputes, as the scientific method corrects theories, even against the awesome power of the church or state: E pur si muove.

To illustrate, Sagan pointed to the elaborate costumes with bright colors adorning professors learned in different schools.  Then he pointed out the hats: the mortar boards most of us, and the odd hats atop some of the academics on stage.  These all signified schools (engineering, physics, mathematics, philosophy, etc.) and schools of thought, and were worn as badges that connected each individual to his or her academic lineage.

But there was one important hat that was missing, and it signified a hard fought but forgotten battle between two medieval academics.  In honor of the victory of an unknown (except to historians) scholar, we today wear the mortar board.  But it was the losing party, whose followers we still recognize in drawings by their pointed caps as magicians, who is still remembered today.  Indeed, all of us were in fear of being sent to the corner to wear the dunce cap, named for theologian John Duns.

Looking back after four decades, I think Sagan was reminding us that we cannot know what history will remember about us, but that we should strive for truth.

One lesson that could be drawn by Jordan and Terman middle school students, is that names matter less than ideas, and that famous people with their names on buildings can be wrong.