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Published: Sunday, 5/31/2009

School that honored history joins disposable society

THE WEBSTER School on Holly Avenue in St. Paul has a tradition going back almost 130 years. It has a rousing song ("Webster School is great as can be/Teachers, parents, friends, and family"). It boasts a commitment to creativity, opportunity, and diversity, three qualities that qualify it as an emblem of the nation's greatest and most enduring values. And it was named for one of the greatest exemplars of the American idea, Daniel Webster.

All of which makes it all the more remarkable, all the more startling, all the more troubling, that the Webster School will soon abandon its proud name and heritage and call itself Barack and Michelle Obama Service Learning Elementary.

It's not that Barack and Michelle Obama aren't important, potentially nation-altering figures. It's that the school already was named for an important American statesman, and wiping away Webster to honor the Obamas does a disservice to students who this month have watched a vital historical name be erased from their childhoods.

This is not even to mention that giving any building the clunky name of "Obama Service Learning Elementary" is an astonishing rebuff to the greatest American orators of both the 19th and 21st centuries, two men who in very different times mobilized the English language in the cause of national unity.

The 526-328 vote among students, parents, and neighbors - a vote monitored by the third grade - is yet another reminder of how the present trumps the past in our disposable society.

The original Webster School was built in the St. Paul neighborhood in 1882, three decades after Webster's death. The current structure dates to 1920, with a 1924 addition, and the school was named for Webster even though any connections between Minnesota and the great senator and secretary of state are tenuous at best. There are perhaps only three, and you have to stretch mightily to come up with them.

The first is that Webster was one of the few Whigs who supported expansion to the West, which in his time included the land that is today Minnesota, which wasn't even incorporated into a territory until three years before his death. Webster also was an ardent supporter and promoter of agriculture, then as today an important part of the Minnesota identity.

The second is that a remark from Webster encircles the wall of the Senate chamber in the Minnesota state legislature less than three miles from Barack and Michelle Obama Service Learning Elementary:

"Let us develop the resources of our land, call forth its powers, build up its institutions, promote all its great interests, and see whether we also, in our day and generation, may not perform something worthy to be remembered."

Mr. Obama alluded to that Webster remark, perhaps without knowing its provenance, in the last sentence of his first presidential address to Congress in February.

Finally, each Monday morning the students of the small St. Paul school stand to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The main theme of the pledge ( "one nation") comes directly from Webster's Second Reply to Hayne of 1830, perhaps the greatest speech ever delivered in the Capitol. Its most famous line is "Liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable."

There is no trace at all of• Webster in the Obama Service Learning Elementary school today, not even a picture of Webster, who may have been the subject of more formal portraits of any man of his time, if not all American history. Indeed, in the period leading up to the vote on the name change, the principal of the school, Lori Simon, actually had to figure out for whom the school was named originally.

Talk about a missed teaching moment. Webster was the greatest orator in the age of great oratory; some of his words remain in the American memory even in this ahistorical age. He was probably the most eminent Supreme Court lawyer in American history, having argued 249 cases before the court, including several of the landmark cases of the early 19th century that shaped constitutional law in the United States for generations. And he was one of the greatest secretaries of state ever (and the first to serve nonconsecutive terms, one under William Henry Harrison and John Tyler, another under Millard Fillmore).

"He achieved great distinction," says Kenneth Shewmaker, editor of the Diplomatic Papers of Daniel Webster. "Barack Obama may have greater distinction because he had the chance to be president. A senator doesn't have that kind of power, but if we understand his legacy, including his role in creating the sense of American nationalism, we wouldn't wipe Webster's name off our buildings."

Changing the name of a school from Webster to Obama is a symptom of a larger problem in American life.

"The kind of present-mindedness that wipes out historical knowledge is a cultural fault of American society," says Hyman Berman, an emeritus history professor at the University of Minnesota. Alan Berolzheimer, a Norwich, Vt., historian who as a young man worked on cataloging and publishing the Webster Papers, adds: "You don't make light of a long-standing historical figure whom a community honored in the first place."

Americans like to name schools after political figures. In Minnesota, there is an elementary school in St. Paul and a high school in Minneapolis named for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash while running for re-election in 2002. The University of Minnesota has the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, named for the mayor, senator, and vice president who is the state's greatest historical figure. And the University of Minnesota Law School is housed in Walter F. Mondale Hall, named for the former senator and vice president. Mr. Mondale is very much alive.

"There should be room for Daniel Webster on our schools," says Mr. Mondale, who is 81. "He would want it that way, and he deserves a place. And though I know names can go up and they can go down, let's leave Mondale Hall alone for a while."

Amen to that.



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