Commentary Magazine

It’s Not Just the Students

Late in 2015, the student activists at Lebanon Valley College briefly became national laughingstocks for demanding that the name of Lynch Memorial Hall be changed. You see, it reminded them of lynching.

Although the students’ other demands—for sensitivity training for faculty, for example—were greeted warmly, the demand concerning Lynch Hall met resistance. Clyde A. Lynch, as Emily Shire explained in the wonderfully titled “The Dumbest College Renaming Debate Yet” not only led Lebanon Valley through the Depression and World War II but also was “active in helping refugees settle in the U.S.” after the war.

When faculty and staff ventured to explain this to the students—think of that!—the students did not drop their concerns. But they did want to find a way to honor the former president, perhaps by renaming the building “The Clyde A. Lynch Memorial Hall,” thereby clarifying, for the rare birds who might otherwise be confused, that the building was not named to honor the practice of lynching.

I would like to think, though I doubt it, that the administration would have refused a demand ultimately based on, as Shire puts it, “discomfort over homonyms.” But a kind of miracle occurred; further research revealed that the building had already been officially renamed the “Clyde A. Lynch ’18 Memorial Hall” in 1990. Problem solved. But the incident became a symbol of how well-intentioned students could make themselves ridiculous.

I bring this up now because it took less than two years for this preposterous demand to be taken up by a community of adults. On Wednesday evening, the Centennial School Board, covering Gresham and Southeast Portland, Oregon voted to drop the name “Lynch” from two elementary schools.

They were named after a family who, in 1900, donated land to be used for a schoolhouse. The reason for the move was precisely the reason offered by the activists of Lebanon Valley. Sure, Lynch is a common name. Sure, it has belonged to, among others, John R. Lynch, a slave who, after the Civil War, became a member of the House of Representatives, and Loretta Lynch, the nation’s first female African-American attorney general. But, by God, it reminds some people of lynching.

Evidently, to preserve some sense of debt to the Lynch family, another school bearing the Lynch name will be renamed “Patrick Lynch.” Adding the “Patrick” will clarify, as in the Lebanon Valley case, that the elementary school is not named after lynching.  Patrick’s spouse, Catherine, is apparently out. I await the next wave of protests.

The board must think that it is somehow splitting the difference between the desire to honor the Lynches and the desire to respond to the “many students, staff, and families” who “have expressed concern at the use of the word ‘lynch.” But they are, at best, splitting the difference between good sense and absurdity. I find it hard to believe the district has received complaints from anyone apart from the professionally offended and those influenced by them, but even if it has, board members should not treat their constituents like children by pretending that a nonsensical demand merits action.

One is reminded of the scene in Annie Hall in which Woody Allen’s character complains that someone who asked him “d’ju eat” [did you eat?] was really saying, tauntingly, “Jew eat.” His friend calls him a “total paranoid.”

In the Centennial School District, such ludicrous hypersensitivity is policy-making gold.

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