The Last Four Years: A Reflection on My Time at W&L
By Hayden Daniel ’19, Former Editor-in-Chief
As my senior year winds down and I begin my transition into the real world, I have begun to reflect on my four years at W&L. During my periods of self-reflection, I am struck not only by how much I have changed since I arrived in 2015 as a starry-eyed First Year but also by how much this institution has changed during my four short years.
I vividly remember the first time that I visited Washington and Lee. I didn’t visit on one of those picturesque days in May or June that you see plastered all over W&L’s social media accounts or publications. I visited on a frigid, overcast day in January of 2015. That day also happened to be Lee-Jackson Day. The annual parade of gray-clad Sons of Confederate Veterans and Antebellum-attired Daughters of the Confederacy marched down Main Street right after the end of my tour. As a Civil War enthusiast, I was used to seeing these figures on battlefields and in museums, but it was surreal to see them in so great a number and in a place so steeped in Civil War history. I also learned during that visit that there had been controversy between the marchers and the W&L administration; the marchers desired to enter campus and utilize Lee Chapel as a venue for their event. My first visit to Washington and Lee proved to also be my first glimpse at the tensions and controversies building on campus. However, the prospect of confrontations over the problematic aspects of American history did not alter my decision to attend W&L. In fact, the promise of engaging and thoughtful debates on America’s past with my fellow students made my choice to go to W&L all the more certain.
Aside from the reasons everyone lists for coming to W&L, such as the great academics, small student-to-professor ratio, amazing networking opportunities, and quaint small-town atmosphere, the institution’s history proved a pivotal factor in my decision to attend. One of my earliest childhood heroes was George Washington. I admired his relentless determination and his devotion to his principles. My conception of Washington’s upstanding moral character was molded by the Newburgh Address. In that address, he denounced the plotting of some of his officers to launch a military coup against Congress and install him as monarch.
Another early hero of mine, and I believe that he continues to be a hero to many Southerners, was Robert E. Lee. I admired Lee’s sense of duty and his graciousness in defeat. Though I abhorred George Washington’s and Robert E. Lee’s perpetuation of slavery, I found their positive qualities inspiring and worthy of honor. So, to attend a school where both of my childhood heroes made a definitive and lasting impact was a dream come true. I came to Washington and Lee because of the unique history that the institution possessed, and I believe that many others have done the same.
During my time at W&L, the administration of the university has made multiple attempts to marginalize and even eliminate the history that makes Washington and Lee so unique and desirable as an institution of higher learning. Lee’s, and even Washington’s, pace at this university has come under question recently, and Lee has borne the brunt of the backlash brought about by Charlottesville. The Commission on Institutional History and Community recommended broad changes to how Lee is depicted on campus as well as the significance of Lee Chapel to campus life. Some, such as the renaming of Lee-Jackson House and the closing of the doors to the room containing the Recumbent Lee statue in Lee Chapel during university events, have already been put in place. I have no doubt that as future controversies unfold some of the more radical suggestions of the Commission will be resurrected ultimately implemented.
To paraphrase William Faulkner, the past at Washington and Lee isn’t dead. In many respects, it is not even past. We live with it every day, and it is our interactions with that past as well as how we choose to deal with it that makes it either inconvenient and uncomfortable or something to be honored and celebrated. If we choose to compare our own moral standards to those of the past and hold figures of the past to standards that no human being could ever possibly fulfill, then our history becomes something that we should be ashamed of and conceal at every opportunity. If we choose to condemn the vices of our predecessors but also not allow those vices to overshadow the virtues of those figures, then we can come to fuller and richer understanding of our history. George Washington and Robert E. Lee deserve to be brought to account for their participation in slavery, but they also deserve to be honored for their contributions to American history, for their impact on the history of this university, and for their individual virtues as human beings who lived and embodied the notion of honor that we hold so dear while also possessing very human flaws.
If we ultimately decide to totally marginalize George Washington and Robert E. Lee within W&L’s historical narrative and to rename the school, then we will become just another elite liberal arts college like Davidson or Amherst. Though this may not seem to be a great tragedy to some, W&L will lose what makes it different from those other colleges if it chooses to go down that path. In the next few years, W&L faces a crisis of identity. The W&L community, students, faculty, staff, and alumni alike, must decide what it wants to be. Does it want to join other universities across the United States that are scrambling to erase any evidence of an inconvenient history in order to appear politically correct, or does it want to be a community that can look at its history objectively and condemn the bad aspects of that history while also acknowledging the good? I fervently hope that W&L chooses the latter course in the coming years. If we choose the former, then the future generations who pass through Washington and Lee University will be poorer for it.
By far, the most memorable and rewarding experience of my college career has been as Editor-in-Chief of the W&L Spectator. During my tenure as Editor-in-Chief, we faced our fair share of controversy, but I am proud to say that we maintained our core principles. As always, we believe in everything that we write, barring satires, and we are not afraid to defend the opinions shared in our articles. I would like to thank everyone who helped to make my tenure as Editor-in-Chief as successful as it was, particularly Nathan Richendollar, Ben Whedon, Ben Gee, Douglas Ciampi, and Mr. John Lane. Without their hard work and dedication, none of the success that the W&L Spectator has enjoyed over the past couple of years would have been possible. I am confident that the new leadership of the W&L Spectator, headed by Mr. Will Tanner, will continue to uphold conservative principles on campus and continue to defend the history and traditions that make Washington and Lee University great.