Sadly, almost any topic in our modern society becomes politicized, forcing us into a corner where we must choose to be for or against. Opinion comes first, interpretation comes later, if at all. Simplicity is the order of the day. Dealing with complexity is inconvenient.
So it is with the irresistible urge to judge historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee and even George Washington — deciding whether we are pro or con, and then injecting them into our contemporary partisan conflicts. It overwhelms any inclination to embrace the study of the past for something other than debating points. We know, or should know, that our own history is complicated. We would appreciate it if those judging us in the future would respect that. We owe the same courtesy to those who came before us.
When Joseph Ellis wrote American Sphinx, his masterful study of Thomas Jefferson, he ran headlong into precisely this problem. As he ventured into his research, his youthful fascination with Jefferson gave way to a mature appreciation for the man with all his contradictions, faults and strengths, failures and accomplishments. History rarely presents us with simple morality tales. And the fortunes of Jefferson in the contemporary age look so much like the dreaded approval ratings in volatile public opinion polls. One day, he is everyone’s hero. The next, he is a hypocrite and a devious politician.
It was a puzzle for Ellis. As commentaries on Jefferson devolved into point-counterpoint volleys, it seemed "impossible to steer an honorable course between idolatry and evisceration," he wrote. The historian concluded wisely that "affection and criticism toward Jefferson are not mutually exclusive positions," and that "all mature appraisals of mythical figures are destined to leave their most ardent admirers somewhat disappointed." Influential individuals who live in turbulent times do things that call attention to the strength of their character, and they do other things that point to their human qualities, which is to say their imperfections. "Anyone who confines his research to one side of the moral equation," wrote Ellis, "is destined to miss a significant part of the story."
There are occasions when I feel these tensions in a direct and personal way.
I serve as president of a college named after two influential and consequential figures. One of them is George Washington, who made our college the beneficiary of his only significant gift to higher education: $20,000 in James River Canal stock. He wanted to support an institution located in an area of the country he considered the "Western frontier."
The other is Robert E. Lee. After the Civil War, he became president of what was then Washington College. He and several members of his family are buried in Lee Chapel, an iconic building on campus where we hold many of our formal ceremonies. My wife, my son and I live in Lee House — the house on campus built for him and his family that has served as the home for all the university's presidents. The dining room is where he died. The building in the driveway was a stall for Traveller, Lee’s horse; it remains preserved as it was back in Lee’s day, and by custom its doors remain forever open. It is the second-most-visited tourist spot in a small town with many historical sites.
We commemorate both men during our annual Founders’ Day Convocation on campus, held on Lee’s birthday each year. Our convocation speaker this year was Ron Chernow, author of the Pulitzer-winning Washington: A Life.
I also am a graduate of the institution I now serve as president, and I proudly and forcefully call upon the traditions of the university in the service of preparing students for lives of integrity and responsibility. My own stance toward Lee is one of respect, especially for what Michael Sandel, the Harvard political theorist, refers to as "the quality of character" of his deliberation when he confronted impossible choices.
But it is not idolatry. Neither is it evisceration. It is instead an honest attempt to understand the man and his times, which included slavery, secession and civil war. I take this stance not for purposes of reaching a final judgment on whether he was destined for heaven or hell — which would be the height of arrogance, as if I, and not Providence, could make such a call — but to appreciate the complexity of history and those who live it. Like Ellis with Jefferson, I have come to the conclusion that affection for and criticism of Lee are not mutually exclusive.
There are times, though, when that is easier said than done.
What should the university do when a Washington Post columnist condemns Lee as a traitor who chose the wrong side when it came to the great moral question of his time? How should we respond when a PBS documentary, which otherwise portrayed the man with all the respect history requires, got it wrong when it came to the chapter in his life that profoundly affected the university? He did not, as the documentary claimed, live out his final years "in hiding" at a small college in the mountains of Virginia. Rather, he fulfilled a pledge. "I have a self-imposed task which I must accomplish," he wrote. "I have led the young men of the South in battle; I have seen many of them die in the field; I shall devote my remaining energies to training young men to do their duty in life." Forsaking far more lucrative offers, he came to a nearly bankrupt college to prepare young men from the North and the South for a dramatically different world in the wake of the Civil War.
Beyond our campus, the story of Lee the general overshadows the story of Lee the educator; understandably so. But those years of curriculum reform and lessons in integrity are inseparable from the man’s biography, and they add a deeper appreciation, especially to our understanding of Lee’s refined sense of duty. Many students and alumni of this university cannot recognize the man when the profile casts aside the effect he had on an educational institution that had a direct effect on our own lives.
For that reason and many others, criticism of Lee, even the unintended oversight, triggers the reflex to rush to the defense. As one thoughtful, dedicated alumnus wrote to me in the wake of the PBS documentary and the Washington Post column, neither of which mentioned the university, "we" have been attacked, and the institution “has done nothing to respond.”
But the university is not synonymous with the man. It is an institution of values, to be sure. And to illustrate its values, it often invokes the stories of individuals who have made it what it is. But it is first and foremost an institution of learning and study, of critical reflection on all matters. Its primary mission is to seek truth. It cannot do so if it closes its own history to examination.
Lee was a dignified, humble man. His sense of duty and honor would cause him to cringe if he ever became the subject of idolatry or the embodiment of myth. Blindly, superficially and reflexively rushing to his defense is no less an affront to history than blindly, superficially and reflexively attacking him. What he needs, what he deserves, and what his record can withstand is the honest appraisal of those who have not made up their minds, who can appreciate the man with all his complexities and contradictions. History is indeed not kind enough to present us with simple morality tales.
More to the point, a university serves its students best by not imposing an orthodox point of view about the past and certainly not the future. Higher education, no less than other institutions, is a victim of our politicized society. The things we do — the courses we teach, the values we espouse, the faculty we hire — should not be subjected to ideological litmus tests.
John Henry Cardinal Newman, the 19th-century British educator, remains a powerful influence on how we think about a college education. His words remind us to keep our bearings. The faculty should “learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other.” In so doing, they create a culture of learning. "A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom." Newman concludes, "This is the main purpose of a university in its treatment of its students."
Ellis has it right when it comes to the role of history. Newman has it right when it comes to the role of the university. But it remains a challenge in our highly divisive times. If any institution should resist the harsh, polarized and emotional discourse of today’s society, and if any institution should model the virtues of calmness, moderation and wisdom, it is a university, especially one named in honor of two individuals who personified precisely those virtues.
Kenneth P. Ruscio is a 1976 graduate of Washington and Lee University. He took office as the university's 26th president in 2006.