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W&L president defends first-year writing seminar, 'How to Overthrow the State,' that went viral

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Newcomb Hall W&L

A seminar course for first-year students at Washington & Lee University called “How to Overthrow the State,” stirred controversy last week among conservative media.

LEXINGTON — A first-year writing seminar at Washington and Lee University, titled “How to Overthrow the State,” drew criticism from national media outlets and a conservative political commentator last week. But university President William Dudley defended the free exchange of ideas in an email to the student body Monday.

The course, which explores historical examples of revolutionary thought and action, was covered by outlets like Breitbart News and Fox News.

Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, on the “Ingraham Angle” on Fox News, said universities are part of the root cause of unrest in U.S. cities. “If people are wondering where the unrest in our cities stems from, we have an instructional course that you can spend $74,000 a year at Washington and Lee to go learn how to overthrow our country,” Kirk said.

W&L’s Dudley wrote in his email that the course “was distorted, sensationalized and turned into political fodder.”

He said that faculty members have received threats, which have been referred to law enforcement.

The main criticism of the course, taught by assistant history professor Matt Gildner, seemed to be the title. But some of the course content was also targeted.

“This course places each student at the head of a popular revolutionary movement aiming to overthrow a sitting government and forge a better society,” reads the course description.

An assignment requiring students to produce a “Manifesto” and write a “persuasive essay on rewriting history and confronting memory” garnered some of the most severe critiques.

All Washington and Lee University freshman must take a writing seminar, unless they test out with their score in high school Advanced Placement English. There are a variety of options this fall, including “How to Overthrow the State.”

Dudley defended the course’s content, mentioning that the Declaration of Independence is one of the first works on the syllabus.

“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?” he wrote.

Even the General’s Redoubt, a conservative alumni group that advocates keeping Robert E. Lee in the university’s name, called the course content benign.

Rex Wooldridge, secretary of the organization, rebuffed the idea that the university is teaching treasonous or seditious material, which is what some commenters on the national stories insinuated.

“No one who has done his or her homework on this course or the curriculum as a whole is accusing Washington and Lee of training students to commit treason,” Wooldridge wrote.

Although the General’s Redoubt does have an issue with the course title.

“The country is plagued with violent, deadly clashes between civilians,” Wooldridge wrote. “To title a course “How to Overthrow the State” in today’s charged national climate is not funny or creative, it is an example of poor judgement.”

Dudley cited several other first-year seminars with potentially provocative titles, though the General’s Redoubt claim none compare to Gildner’s.

The university president called the response to the course an “overreaction,” and said that the school is committed to expression of ideas, critical thinking and careful consideration of differing perspectives — part of the value of a liberal arts education.

“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.”

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