Politics & Policy

GW’s Decision to Ditch U.S. History Exemplifies How Elite Schools Fail Their Students

Bust of Washington on the GWU campus (Dreamtime photo: Jon Bilous)
George Washington himself had a better vision for how to educate Americans than do today’s college administrators.

The George Washington University is named for:

a) America’s first president

b) the president of the 1787 Constitutional Convention

c) the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army

d) all of the above

If you struggled to answer that question, you may be a product of the George Washington University.

Recently, GW — a 25,000-student private university located in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, D.C. – eliminated its American-history requirement for undergraduate history majors, making it theoretically possible to graduate from GW with a history degree without ever having had to take a college-level course in U.S. history.

Of course, GW’s decision is hardly novel. In July, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that “only 23 undergraduate history programs at the U.S. News & World Report’s top 25 national universities, top 25 public institutions, and top 25 liberal arts colleges require a single U.S. history class,” and where the requirement remained, students could fulfill it with courses such as “Mad Men and Mad Women” (Middlebury College) and “Hip-Hop, Politics, and Youth Culture in America” (University of Connecticut).

But there is a special irony in this latest installment of the trend — and a particularly acute demonstration of how the elite American university is failing its students.

GW, like many elite institutions of higher learning, is going global. On its “Our Priorities” webpage, GW presents a “formula for moving the world forward,” declaring its mission to be “finding solutions to national and global problems.” This is the trend in higher education. Stanford University is “one of the world’s great universities.” Columbia University calls itself “one of the world’s most important centers of research,” emphasizes its support for “research and teaching on global issues,” and aims “to convey the products of its efforts to the world.” Down the road, New York University, the height of cosmopolitanism, boasts that it has “50,000 students at three degree-granting campuses in New York City, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai, and at study away sites in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, North and South America.” Put another way, the only continent from which NYU is institutionally absent is Antarctica.

“Globalism” as the term of art for a sinister, George Soros–funded “New World Order” has become the bête noire of a particular strain of contemporary politics. But the word “globalism” is an accurate, neutral description of the type of thinking that has characterized elite universities since the end of World War II. To the administrators and academics who revise these institutions’ mission statements, the nation-state has had its day. Local attachments breed conflict. Peace on Earth will reign when people share the intimacy of neighborhoods at the distance of nations. We need to work toward a “global community.” Barack Obama was only parroting his education when he declared himself a “citizen of the world.”

That’s not an ignoble vision. But “the world” is not a thing like “France” or “Chile” or “the United States.” “The world” does not provide a particular lineage or a set of customs or a canon of stories that helps a person situate himself in time and space, that helps to constitute a unique and coherent identity. No one’s home is “the world.”

‘The world’ has no citizens, and those who hope to change it must do so by way of particular places and specific, local loyalties.

In fact, the George Washington University was founded with something like the opposite in mind. “It has always been a source of serious regret with me to see the youth of these United States sent to foreign Countries for the purpose of Education,” George Washington wrote in 1799, “often before their minds were formed, or they had imbibed any adequate ideas of the happiness of their own.” Too frequently, he lamented, they contract “principles unfriendly to Republican Governmt [sic] and to the true & genuine liberties of Mankind; which, thereafter are rarely overcome.” As a remedy, Washington in his will bequeathed his 50 shares in the Potomac Company “towards the endowment of a university to be established within the limits of the District of Columbia,” to which “the youth of fortune and talents from all parts thereof might be sent for the completion of their Education in all the branches of polite literature; in arts and Sciences, [and] in acquiring knowledge in the principles of Politics & good Government.” In 1821, by an Act of Congress, Washington’s benevolence became the Columbian College in the District of Columbia, renamed in 1904 “the George Washington University,” in honor of its de facto founder.

The appropriateness — in 1799 or now — of a “national university” is debatable, but Washington’s larger vision deserves renewed consideration: He wanted the American university to be an American university, in its educational activities faithful to the unique history, circumstances, and meaning of the fledgling country in which it stood. The American university should cultivate leaders with a devotion to their nation, not an intellectual loyalty to an abstract notion.

Times having changed, nurturing patriotism now smacks of indoctrination, and elite universities are eager not to tempt a flare-up of nationalism. But the result is not increased global solidarity; it’s more and more elite anomie, as the products of elite institutions absorb the message that natural, concrete loyalties — to country, chief among them — are toxic, and struggle to muster the same affection for high-minded ideological projects.

#related#There is a place for cosmopolitanism, for worldliness, for a cultured touch, just as there is a place for international coordination and cooperation. Washington himself hoped his university would help students free themselves from “local prejudices & habitual jealousies” that “when carried to excess, are . . . pregnant of mischievous consequences to this Country.” But the rebel against the British Empire was not under the misimpression that the United States was merely a larval stage on the way to a more perfect global union.

That is the view of many of our elite academic institutions, which are keen to speed the process along. But “the world” has no citizens, and those who hope to change it must do so by way of particular places and specific, local loyalties.

If the George Washington University wishes to change the world, it might start by relearning its own history.

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