Editor’s Note: This editorial was originally printed on Saturday, July 12 in the Winchester Star. It is reposted with permission here.
After assuming presidency of his alma mater in 2006, Kenneth P. Ruscio, so the Washington & Lee University web site eagerly informs its readers, has overseen “an ambitious strategic plan emphasizing its commitment to a liberal arts education in the 21st century.” One would like to think such a “ commitment” includes an appreciation of the prestigious school’s history and traditions, nurtured and upheld over time. In light of recent events — and today’s mania for grievance as well as political correctness — perhaps such an assumption is erroneous, misguided. Earlier this week, Dr. Ruscio announced the Lexington university would accede to “demands” tendered by a small but vocal minority of law students and remove battle flags from Lee Chapel, where Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, a former president of the school, and his family are buried. In a gingerly worded but somewhat rambling statement, Dr. Ruscio also expressed regret — some consider the sentiments an apology — over the institution’s ownership of slaves before the Civil War.
We fail to see how removal of these flags — and, by extension, repudiation of the school’s birthright — advances the cause of “ liberal” education in any way whatsoever. Part and parcel of the learning experience is the acknowledgement of history. With regard to its past, W&L cannot be any more, or less, than what it is. The school, in many ways, owes its existence to the two men for whom it is currently named — George Washington, credited with establishing its first endowment, and Gen. Lee, whose inspired albeit short- lived leadership was instrumental in Washington College’s survival following four long years of war. In bending to transient 21st-century “demands,” is the school intent on ignoring its history?
We honestly don’t think so, although Dr. Ruscio’s mindbendingly nuanced, even pinched remarks seem to suggest a needless and almost ahistorical accommodation. And we say this duly noting that Dr. Ruscio said Gen. Lee “deserves, and his record can withstand, an honest appraisal by those who understand the complexities of history.” Well then, let those battle flags remain, for no “honest appraisal” of Marse Robert can be made without acknowledging that he led men into battle under that standard.
In searching for a reason to validate their removal, Dr. Ruscio implied that, as mere reproductions of originals that had graced the chapel until 1995, the flags had lost the ability to “educate.”
“ The reproductions,” he wrote, “are not genuinely historic, nor are they displayed with any information or background about what they are. The absence of such explanation allows those who either ‘oppose’ or ‘support’ them to assert their own subjective and frequently incorrect interpretations.”
This, in our opinion, is prevarication. If context, in this instance, is requisite to education, — and we believe that it is — then provide it. That might promote a greater appreciation of why Gen. Lee acted as he did. But context and education, much less appreciation, hardly fit the agenda of the students who rather grandiloquently call themselves The Committee. If anyone were eager to, as Dr. Ruscio said, “assert their own subjective and frequently incorrect interpretations,” it was this group — whose membership, we must assume, was fully acquainted with the school’s history before choosing to matriculate there. And Dr. Ruscio surrendered to them anyway.
While we strongly disagree with this decision, we fervently hope that, short of reversal, such matters will end here. Sadly, we’re not optimistic. Once the whiff of capitulation is in the air, ad hoc contingents like The Committee are seldom satisfied until further “demands” are voiced and met.
So what’s next in Lexington? A name change on campus, so Gen. Lee’s efforts to both help the school and bind the wounds of war are eradicated from visible memory? Or exhumation of the Lee family — and horse Traveller, too — with reinterment far from “The Hill” at W&L? The renaming of the city’s R.E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church (it is named for a “saint,” as old-time Lexingtonians will tell you)?
Facetious? Perhaps. But we shudder to think.