Washington and Lee University Offers Course on ‘How To Overthrow the State’?

Washington and Lee University offers a course  called “How to Overthrow the State: Historical Lessons from the Global South.” It’s a first year writing course, but the outcry against it has become national news. And there are conflicting pieces of information as to not just the name of the course, but what’s actually in it.

washington and lee university
Washington and Lee University, Lexington, VA (Facebook photo)
Screenshot of course from online catalog

The instructor, Dr R. Matt Gildner, is an assistant professor of history, not a writing instructor. His focus has been on the history of Latin America, (Bolivia and Peru) and he has written several papers on those subjects. He has also taught at the University of Texas at Austin.  The class reportedly involves reviewing historical texts that inspired people to move into revolution.

The college stands by its class, saying that there is “over-reaction” to the name of the course. And no one thought about that when they named it?

WSET reported the University President’s response to the critics:

But that happened last week when “How to Overthrow the State: Historical Lessons from the Global South” — one of 15 introductory writing sections offered on a wide variety of topics this Fall Term — was distorted, sensationalized, and turned into political fodder on blogs, television, and social media. Some of our faculty have received threats that we have referred to law enforcement. In addition to defending the safety of our community members and expressing my unequivocal support for the free exchange of ideas in our classrooms and in the public arena, I want to reflect on the education we offer at Washington and Lee and the way that this particular course, which became the target of misguided criticism, actually exemplifies the best of what we do…

The goal of our introductory writing courses is to impress upon our students the power of the well-written word and to strengthen their ability to write clearly and persuasively. The first step in successful teaching, no matter the subject, is getting students’ attention and capturing their imagination. Professors from a wide range of departments, including Africana Studies, English, History, Philosophy, and Theater, develop creative themes drawn from their own areas of expertise. Titles this term include “Monsters Among Us,” “Mysteries and Puzzles,” and “Shut Up & Play: Black Athletes and Activism.” The topics vary greatly, but the focus of every section is the appreciation and production of good writing…

…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? The Declaration of Independence, for example, is one of the first works on the syllabus in “How to Overthrow the State.” The revolution announced by Jefferson’s political words, and accomplished by Washington’s military deeds, brought the United States into being. Students in this course read primary texts from numerous other historical periods, including the “South Carolina Articles of Secession.” The course does not advocate revolution or train students for it.” WLU President Will Dudley

Who named the course at Washington and Lee University? What is the thrust of the instructor in it? The issue here isn’t so much the idea of teaching a well-rounded writing course, it’s the concern for the attitude of the instructor. The fact that the course was named a controversial statement on “How to Overthrow the State,” in today’s context of violent Marxists tends to make people think something other than just a nice ‘course to teach students how to write.’

The course itself on the University website reads 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. Students engage these texts by participating in a variety of writing exercises, such as producing a Manifesto, drafting a white paper that critically analyzes a particular issue, and writing a persuasive essay on rewriting history and confronting memory.

Are revolutionaries (aka murderers) like Che Guevara the best choices for learning how to write? Frantz Fanon was a Marxist humanist. Is writing a “manifesto” a good way to teach? Is “rewriting history” a good place to start? It sounds more like a Marxist ‘how to’ class rather than an actual writing class.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said it best:

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

H/T Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children


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Faye Higbee

Faye Higbee is the columnist manager for Uncle Sam's Misguided Children. She has been writing at Conservative Firing Line since 2013 as well. She is also a published author.

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