Contributions of nation’s greatest conservationist outweigh his flaws
By John F. Williams
The Ashland School District is preparing to erase the name of America’s most well-known conservationist from one of their schools. John Muir, whose birthday, April 21, helped inspire Earth Day, is known as the “Father of the National Parks,” but the school district has decided to eliminate his name from the John Muir Outdoor School, because in their estimation he was racist and classist.
It’s true that as a restless young man in the 1860s, Muir used some language that, in the context of today’s better-educated world, could be deemed racist, or at least tasteless. In 1867 he walked a 1,000-mile journey across the American South, keeping a personal journal in which he occasionally used disparaging stereotypes to describe people of color. He also occasionally used unkind words for poor white people as well, calling one group “white savages.”
As the West was opening up, Muir was contemplating a career as a travel writer, and he was exploring the sensationalist vernacular of the post-Civil War era. He also sympathized with the plight of former slaves in the South and explicitly called out the bigoted mindset he experienced amongst white people. At some point, he became aware that some of his journal entries were sounding negative, and he offered an apology to the reader. But Muir never published this journal. Sixty years after his death, however, someone else did.
A year after his big walk, Muir was in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where he found a rapturous calling as a conservationist and nature writer. What Muir did publish helped solidify his legacy, according to the National Park Service, as “America’s most famous naturalist and conservationist.” He discovered that what was really important to him was to “keep close to Nature’s heart.” Years later Muir was a vital hero of the early conservation movement, and coined the phrase “The mountains are calling and I must go.”
But all heroes have flaws, especially when you judge them out of context. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Abraham Lincoln spent most of his career advocating for the separation of races. Even heroes in the black community, including Martin Luther King Jr. and Frederick Douglass, have well-documented moral flaws. Thankfully, nobody has questioned their value in history … yet. It’s easy and seductive to cherry-pick specific sentences or actions from a historical figure’s life in an effort to define them as “good” or “bad.” Should we erase all place names referencing these individuals?
The Ashland School District itself also owns the Lincoln Elementary School, yet did not recommend erasing Lincoln’s name from buildings (or burning $5 bills for that matter). The San Francisco School Board tried to do this last year, but their poorly-informed, unfortunate decision led to the recall of several leaders.
Rather than try to erase the name of America’s most famous conservationist from a school with a series of ill-informed, revisionist presumptions about whether or not he should be labeled a racist, perhaps the Ashland School District could recognize that historical figures such as Muir were flawed and worthy of discussion. There are good reasons we look upon Washington, Lincoln and King as heroes who helped shape our imperfect world into a slightly more enlightened world today. Muir belongs in that group as well. And remember, Muir is not here to defend himself from the Ashland School District’s presumptions.
When Ashland created the John Muir Outdoor School it found a namesake who embodied the ethos of the school. John Muir was not a social engineer or a politician; he was a conservationist. At this, he excelled. Most historians have long considered John Muir a great American hero. All of Muir’s biographers note that his attitudes about people evolved over time. He would go on to live amongst Native Americans and even become an honorary tribal chief.
John Muir did not own slaves, did not advocate for the separation of races and, by all reports, was an honest, sincere person who worked on behalf of humanity to save our most treasured lands. Some Ashland School District leaders, as well as a few contemporary writers who have used Muir’s words out of context, have called Muir racist, and have accused him of placing himself above people of color. The vast body of evidence, however, says those accusations simply aren’t accurate.
The history of America is complicated and far from smooth. Of course there are historical figures like Jefferson Davis for whom we should not name our schools. But John Muir is not one of them. Like our Founding Fathers and nearly all of the great leaders who helped shape our nation’s course, John Muir was an imperfect human. He reflected the 1800’s, but nevertheless transcended much of the conventional thought of the time with the idea that we should preserve large areas of our country. This is a legacy which has enriched all of our lives.
He wrote that Native Americans were “being robbed of their lands and pushed ruthlessly back into narrower and narrower limits by alien races who were cutting off their means of livelihood.” He also wrote that “men, women and children of every creed and color from every nation under the sun” deserved fair work benefits. These do not sound like the epithets of a racist leader.
The Ashland School District has taken it upon itself to re-imagine our nation’s greatest conservationist as the bad guy, reinforcing the use of simplistic, out-of-context subjectivity to weave a false narrative of Muir as a great enabler of racism, and someone who inexplicably should’ve been more mindful of how his conservation efforts could be interpreted in the social context of the future. Instead, for Earth Day, they could’ve had a more factual lesson plan about the importance and complexities of our nation’s greatest conservationist.
John F. Williams is a former Ashland School Board member.