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Editorial: Here's what the critics of W&L's 'How to overthrow the state' class missed

Editorial: Here's what the critics of W&L's 'How to overthrow the state' class missed

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Some things are too good to be true.

That inheritance from the Nigerian prince.

The promise that “one size fits all.”

Those pop-up ads that promise “single girls in your area are dying to meet you.”

And the fevered claim that has rocketed around the mediasphere that Washington & Lee University is teaching students “how to overthrow the state.” This seemed to fit perfectly into the mindset that academia is an elitist enclave of radicals who are busily molding impressionable young minds to hate America. Academia often is an elitist enclave but if college professors were that influential you’d think we’d see a lot of other things, too — brainwashed students marching in lockstep to demand tenure for all, instead of students posting snarky reviews of their instructors on Rate My Professors.

In any case, there really is a class at W&L titled “How To Overthrow The State,” which definitely sent certain conservative commentators into a tizzy, as if they’d uncovered an Antifa plot hidden in plain sight. Unfortunately, what these commentators fell for — without bothering to actually research the topic — is not some leftist reeducation camp but a brilliant example of a key conservative value in action. Specifically, the free market. Here’s what Breitbart News (which apparently first reported the story) and Laura Ingraham on Fox News and all the others didn’t bother to report. At W&L— not unlike many other schools — all freshmen must take a writing class unless they test out of it with a high score from their high school Advanced Placement English class. This fall there are 16 such classes offered, each built around a different theme. Students must pick one, based on their interests and their schedule:

Memoir and Identity in Literature

Shut Up and Play: Black Athletes and Activism

Monsters Among Us

Animal Intimacies

Homeward Bound

Don’t “I” Me: Privilege, Otherness and Writing

Mysteries, Puzzles, & Conundrums

Aspects of Elizabeth

Fables, Animal Tales, and Tricksters

The Nature of Nature: Environmental Thought and Literature

The Healing Power of Nature

Asking the Big Questions

The Middle East and North Africa in Films

Acting & Identity

And, yes:

How to Overthrow the State

Some of these titles are clear at first glance, others aren’t. “Monsters Among Us” deals partly with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and other monster novels. No, “Animal Intimacies” isn’t about beastiality, it’s about how “animals occupy a central force in our lives.” “Aspects of Elizabeth” is about Queen Elizabeth I. And students in “How To Overthrow The State” aren’t learning how to make Molotov cocktails. They’re learning “active reading, argumentation, the appropriate presentation of evidence, various methods of critical analysis, and clarity of style.”

What we have here, friends, is not a refashioned Washington & Lenin University but the oldest marketing trick in the book: The bait-and-switch. Professors want more students in their classes, right? The more who sign up for a particular class, the better the professor looks. (Another free market concept: supply and demand). Some professor here — that would be Matt Gildner, an assistant professor of history whose specialty is Latin America — has come up with a clever title to entice more students to sign up for his class. As a former college professor, Newt Gingrich, who tweeted unfavorably about the class without apparently doing any research, should know better. A spokesman for The General’s Redoubt, a group of conservative alumni, defended the class but told Roanoke Times correspondent Grace Mamon that in today’s political climate the title “is not funny or creative, it is an example of poor judgement.” Maybe. Or maybe it’s the most brilliant marketing ploy since Madison Avenue made toilet paper pitchman Mr. Whipple into a cultural icon. Take something necessary but not particularly interesting and make it sound glamorous.

Yes, the class is structured to imagine each student “at the head of a popular revolutionary movement aiming to overthrow a sitting government and forge a better society. How will you attain power? How will you communicate with the masses? How do you plan on improving the lives of the people? How will you deal with the past?” But you could substitute the phrase “at the head of a shareholders revolt on the board of directors” and the lessons learned here would fit into any corporate setting. Would that make critics feel better? Probably, but “How To Win a Seat on the Board of Directors and Communicate with Shareholders and Employees” isn’t nearly as marketable as “How to Overthrow the State.” Plus, “How To Win Friends and Influence People” is already taken. And, oh, one of the first things students are required to read is a radical document by a well-known traitor — that would be the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson, who escaped the hangman’s noose only by virtue of being on the winning side. Imagine the disappointment of students who signed up hoping to become modern-day disciples of Che Guevara but instead have to read something from a dead white male! And a slaveholder, to boot! Horrors! (Although horror would more properly be in the monsters class). If the critics had bothered to dig further, they might have found even more things to complain about. That class on “Don’t “I” Me: Privilege, Otherness and Writing” explores “the complexities of and correspondence between (suggested) inferiority and otherness based on factors such as color, gender, education, sexual orientation, privilege, and language.” The reading list for that class includes “James Baldwin, Peggy McIntosh, Claudia Rankine, Tucker Carlson, Audre Lorde, and Isabel Allende.” Wait, Tucker Carlson? The Fox News host?

Here we have a class where students are required to read one of the most-known conservative commentators in the land?

At a Southern school named after a slaveholder and a Confederate? How much more stereotypical can you get? Where is the outrage here?

Maybe the problem isn’t that conservative commentators haven’t done their job, it’s that liberal commentators haven’t done theirs.

Think of the “likes”! Think of the re-tweets! Think of the ratings! After all, the louder and more outraged we are, the more persuasive we are, right?

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