Education in 2020

To: The W&L Community
From: President Will Dudley
Date: Sept. 7, 2020

We live in strange times, when a first-year composition course can become national news.  But that happened last week when “How to Overthrow the State:  Historical Lessons from the Global South” — one of 15 introductory writing sections offered on a wide variety of topics this Fall Term — was distorted, sensationalized, and turned into political fodder on blogs, television, and social media.  Some of our faculty have received threats that we have referred to law enforcement.  In addition to defending the safety of our community members and expressing my unequivocal support for the free exchange of ideas in our classrooms and in the public arena, I want to reflect on the education we offer at Washington and Lee and the way that this particular course, which became the target of misguided criticism, actually exemplifies the best of what we do.

I am currently teaching a philosophy seminar on the university mission statement, which commits us to provide “a liberal arts education that develops students’ capacity to think freely, critically, and humanely and to conduct themselves with honor, integrity, and civility.”  Critical thinking and good writing are tightly connected.  In the wise words of cartoonist Dick Guindon, which I encourage my students to heed, “writing is nature’s way of letting you know how sloppy your thinking is.”  Teaching students to write is fundamental to our mission, and we require all students to take a course in English composition or to demonstrate equivalent competence.

The goal of our introductory writing courses is to impress upon our students the power of the well-written word and to strengthen their ability to write clearly and persuasively.  The first step in successful teaching, no matter the subject, is getting students’ attention and capturing their imagination.  Professors from a wide range of departments, including Africana Studies, English, History, Philosophy, and Theater, develop creative themes drawn from their own areas of expertise.  Titles this term include “Monsters Among Us,” “Mysteries and Puzzles,” and “Shut Up & Play:  Black Athletes and Activism.”  The topics vary greatly, but the focus of every section is the appreciation and production of good writing.

What better way to teach the power of writing — the idea that the pen is mightier than the sword — than to ask students to read and evaluate historical texts that aspired to move their original audiences to revolution?  The Declaration of Independence, for example, is one of the first works on the syllabus in “How to Overthrow the State.”  The revolution announced by Jefferson’s political words, and accomplished by Washington’s military deeds, brought the United States into being.  Students in this course read primary texts from numerous other historical periods, including the “South Carolina Articles of Secession.”  The course does not advocate revolution or train students for it.  It studies how revolutionaries have written in order to help students become more powerful and persuasive writers.  That is directly in the service of our mission, and I’m proud we offer this course at Washington and Lee. 

The overreaction to “How to Overthrow the State” also calls for reflection on civility, another of the core values in our mission statement.  Our community — students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents — is large and intellectually diverse.  Individual members disagree about many things, ranging from course titles to the name of the university.  We are expressly committed to encouraging all to speak their minds freely and to consider carefully alternative points of view.  It is incumbent upon us to treat each other with respect and not perpetrate or tolerate personal attacks.  We each have important rights and responsibilities as members of the W&L community, which I urge us all to recognize and uphold. 

I try to view every challenge as an opportunity, and the challenge posed by this episode is an opportunity to remind ourselves of the value of liberal arts education and the means by which we provide it. I look forward to being in the classroom with my students on Tuesday, teaching Aristotle, careful reading, critical thinking, and good writing.