Pieces of Silver for Public Names -- and Our Shared Identities

One of the most unmistakable signs that a commons is under siege is the willingness of civic leaders to auction the “naming rights” of some central institutions in our society — schools, parks, sports arenas, and much else. The trend is examined in two pieces that, coincidentally, both appeared yesterday (January 26, 2006). In the Christian Science Monitor, my co-blogger Jonathan Rowe has a commentary about how the names of places once mirrored deeper meanings and values, even our identity — all of which are now being sold to the highest bidder. An excerpt:

In scriptural times, the bestowal of a name was an event of great significance. A name was an expression of character; and humans earned new ones in accordance with their inner growth. Jacob, after he spent the night wrestling with his demons, became Israel. His old name means “to seize by the heel.” His new one, “God will rule.” The places where such events occurred acquired new names, too. Jacob called the place of his trial Peniel, which means the “face of God.”

Meanwhile, The New York Times featured a front-page story on the move by the Philadelphia school system to sell not just the names of schools, but the right to name and place corporate logos on the food court ($500,000), science laboratories ($50,000), the administrative offices ($750,000) or the performing arts pavilion ($1 million). Classroom names and logos will go for $25,000 each.

This backdoor, private financing of public schools is a distressing omen. Support for the commons is waning, and opportunistic businesses are rushing in to seize control of what they can. The result is a long-term, structural shift of ownership and control. As Alex Molnar, director of the Commercialism in Education Research Unit at Arizona State University, put it, “[Public education] is being eroded, inch by inch, by an ongoing blurring of the distinction between public interest and private good. There’s a big equity problem here. By definition, parental funding, private foundations and naming rights are disequalizing.”

If the schools are going to teach civic virtue, their embrace of naming rights is sending exactly the opposite message. It demonstrates that money talks and good citizenship walks. If corporations are so darn committed to public schools, let them give money, the old-fashioned way, as outright philanthropy, rather than exploiting beleaguered schools and civic spaces as self-promotional billboards.