A teach­able mo­ment on J.E.B. Stu­art High School

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY TOM DAVIS

The pro­posal to change the name of J.E.B. Stu­art High School presents the Fair­fax County School Board, in fact the en­tire com­mu­nity and na­tion, with a teach­able mo­ment.

The school board adopted Reg­u­la­tion 8170.7 re­quir­ing “suf­fi­cient sup­port” and “some com­pelling need” for a school name change. “Suf­fi­cient sup­port” is not de­fined, nor is “com­pelling need,” but it is clear, through sur­veys, that the ma­jor­ity of the Stu­art com­mu­nity and the stu­dent body do not sup­port a name change. Equally im­por­tant, the J.E.B. Stu­art High School’s Par­ent Teacher Stu­dent As­so­ci­a­tion, ser­vice clubs and booster clubs have not stepped for­ward to sup­port a change.

The most im­por­tant fact is that no “com­pelling need” has been demon­strated. Ap­par­ently, there are a few of­fended com­mu­nity mem­bers, but no one has sug­gested that the learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment has been harmed be­cause of the name of the school. Stu­art’s en­roll­ment is about half His­panic, 23 per­cent non-His­panic white (in­clud­ing a strong Arab com­po­nent), 14 per­cent Asian and 10 per­cent black (many of them from other coun­tries), and for years the school’s diver­sity and in­ter­na­tional fla­vor have been cel­e­brated with its chal­leng­ing In­ter­na­tional Bac­calau­re­ate cur­ricu­lum.

Chang­ing the name of this high school has been es­ti­mated to cost be­tween $750,000 and $1 mil­lion. I don’t think spend­ing that money on chang­ing the name is a good use of funds when bud­get dif­fi­cul­ties have re­sulted in stu­dents be­ing slapped with ac­tiv­ity fees, teach­ing po­si­tions be­ing elim­i­nated and class sizes grow­ing ever larger. It also would send an un­wel­come mes­sage to the Vir­ginia Gen­eral Assem­bly that Fair­fax County is more in­ter­ested in spend­ing money for name changes than for stu­dent de­vel­op­ment.

Then there is the mat­ter of J.E.B. Stu­art him­self. There is no his­tor­i­cal re­search and no post­hu­mous war crime dec­la­ra­tion that would lead any­one to find a com­pelling rea­son to change the name of the school. James Ewell Brown Stu­art was a Vir­ginian and a grad­u­ate of the U.S. Military Acad­emy who be­came a highly re­garded cav­alry of­fi­cer and tac­ti­cian. Be­fore the Civil War, he was part of an Army ef­fort to stop the fight­ing in “Bleed­ing Kansas” and de­fended abo­li­tion­ist set­tlers war­ring with their pro-slav­ery op­po­nents. His role was cel­e­brated in the movie “Santa Fe Trail,” in which he was por­trayed by Er­rol Flynn.

Stu­art in­her­ited two slaves but freed them in 1859. He op­posed se­ces­sion, but he sided with his na­tive state when war broke out, as did many other Vir­ginia of­fi­cers. He was 31 and a Con­fed­er­ate gen­eral when he died from wounds suf­fered in battle. His military prow­ess still is widely ac­claimed. A saber hook he de­vloped (U.S. patent No. 25,684 A) was used by armies across the globe. And so renowned was his military ge­nius, even in­ter­na­tion­ally, that Bri­tish M3 and M5 tanks used in World War II were nick­named “Stu­art tanks” in his honor.

Stu­art is part of our com­pli­cated past. His role is some­thing that can be dis­cussed ra­tio­nally and un­der­stood in the con­text of real his­tory, not pre­sump­tions pro­jected on him by peo­ple liv­ing 150 years later.

In con­sid­er­ing the re­nam­ing of its schools, the Fair­fax County School Board must ad­here to its stated cri­te­ria. If it ig­nores the “com­pelling need” cri­te­rion, the school board would cre­ate divi­sion and mis­trust rather than unity and sup­port. Some have sug­gested that it might as well be called “Hitler High.” Such hy­per­bole has added too much emo­tion, yielded too few facts and in­tim­i­dated stu­dents.

Forc­ing a change the ma­jor­ity of the com­mu­nity has not em­braced would cre­ate un­wel­come prece­dents. Re­mov­ing Stu­art’s name would most cer­tainly lead to re­mov­ing the names of Con­fed­er­ate Gen. Robert E. Lee and Con­fed­er­ate Col. John Mosby from their re­spec­tive schools. Where would it end?

Not cav­ing in to the views of a few can serve as a model to han­dle con­tro­ver­sies that are break­ing out through­out the South over stat­ues, me­mo­ri­als, parks and in­sti­tu­tions named for Con­fed­er­ate lead­ers. Let’s take a lead from other ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions with com­plex lega­cies, such as Prince­ton and the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia.

Rather than ig­nore his­tory, let this be a mo­ment when we teach stu­dents, the com­mu­nity and the na­tion that the life and his­tory of a by­gone leader and our com­plex state and county his­to­ries needn’t be re­duced to crass pol­i­tics and sound bites and can be tools to pro­mote rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, ed­u­ca­tion and, most im­por­tant, love of our unique coun­try and each other.

The writer, a Repub­li­can, rep­re­sented J.E.B. Stu­art High School for 14 years while serv­ing on the Fair­fax County Board of Su­per­vi­sors and rep­re­sented Vir­ginia’s 11th Con­gres­sional District in the House from 1995 to 2008. Two of his chil­dren at­tended J.E.B. Stu­art High School.


A J.E.B. Stu­art statue in Rich­mond.

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