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Washington and Lee University defends course on How to Overthrow the State

Washington and Lee University has defended its course titled ‘How to Overthrow the Government’ which requires students to write a revolutionary manifesto, after coming under fire from critics led by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

The president of the private liberal-arts university in Virginia on Monday issued a statement defending the course, which is one of 15 introductory writing seminars that first-year students are required to take.

The controversy exploded after the course description gained notice, stating in part: ‘This course places 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? From Frantz Fanon to Che Guevara to Mohandas Gandhi and others, we explore examples of revolutionary thought and action from across the Global South,’ the course description continues.

The course tasks students with ‘producing a Manifesto, drafting a white paper that critically analyzes a particular issue, and writing a persuasive essay on rewriting history and confronting memory.’ 

Gingrich, who was a professor of history before being elected to Congress, slammed the course offering in a tweet.

‘Washington and Lee University’s course on “how to overthrow the state” is one further sign of the insanity taking over higher education,’ he wrote. ‘The alumni should rise up and show how to overthrow a crazy college administration.’

In a statement, Washington and Lee President Will Dudley lamented that the course had been ‘distorted, sensationalized, and turned into political fodder on blogs, television, and social media.’

He said that the goal of the sensational course description was ‘getting students’ attention and capturing their imagination.’

‘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?’ wrote Dudley.

He noted that both the Declaration of Independence and South Carolina’s 1860 Articles of Secession were required reading in the course.

‘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,’ wrote Dudley. 

He continued that the ‘overreaction’ to the course ‘calls for reflection on civility,’ noting that within the campus, people ‘disagree about many things, ranging from course titles to the name of the university.’

Washington and Lee is named after American President George Washington and Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

In 1870, the trustees of Washington College renamed the school to reflect the contributions of Lee, who served as both commander of the Confederate States Army and president of the college. 

In July of this year, the board of trustees formed a special committee to consider renaming the university, saying the process may take up to six months.  

The name had come under fire both for honoring Washington, a slaveholder, and Lee, who fought for the Confederacy. 

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