‘In and Of the District’ in the classroom

A few months ago, the University published an elegant little booklet called “The George Washington University In and Of the District of Columbia,” “GW + DC” for short. If you have not yet seen a copy and read it, I urge you to do so. On the page or online, I recommend it to students, faculty, staff, neighbors, District residents and anyone who comes regularly, or even occasionally, to Washington.

I would also like to propose that “GW + DC” be used as the basis of a one-credit course, offered especially to freshmen but available to anyone who would like to take it. This proposal, of course, must be debated and accepted by the appropriate faculty committees, and I hope they will deliberate and approve the course soon.

By making this proposal I am not, I hasten to ensure you, trying to add to the academic underbrush that grows up in any university or to add an uncompensated burden to the faculty. If such a course is approved, it will be funded. As for the underbrush, I think such a course might actually offer the benefit of clearing paths and blazing trails, thus making the complex navigation through both the University and the District easier for the interested traveler.

Why offer for such a course credit, even if it only one? Because I think this adds to the seriousness of the enterprise. The course may not fulfill any requirement or serve as a prerequisite, but it still will be a GW course with a serious academic intention, a formal structure and some method for evaluating performance. I do not propose the course, and consequently the credit, as an entertainment or even an orientation, but an intellectual excursion into the characters and histories of the District and GW. This excursion – and some of it really might be on foot – will require thought and work, and the normal reward in academia for thought and work is credit. Even if only one.

All universities to some extent derive their characters, cultures and identities from their place of origin: Oxford and Boston universities acquired their names simply because that is where they are, but both actively identify with their cities to this day. Certainly a student looking comparatively at GW and some of our “market basket” competitors, such as NYU or Emory, will weigh the value of being in Washington against being in New York or Atlanta.

But GW, I have always thought, has a stronger sense of place and deeper roots than other universities I am familiar with and has, historically, had its fate and fortune more tightly bound to its home city than others. In 1873, when GW was still Columbian University (recently upgraded from Columbian College), President James Clark Welling referred to the human and physical resources of Washington, DC, as “a vast permanent endowment” for the University. What was true 130 years ago remains, I believe, true today.

My proposal for a one-credit course grows out between my belief that the relationship of the University and the city continues to be so powerful and intimate that studying it formally will benefit individual students who take the course and will ultimately benefit the University as a whole as the understanding of the long-time relationship between the University and the city becomes part of GW culture.

Both the District of Columbia and GW’s avatar, Columbian College, were cut from whole cloth, conjured by acts of Congress in both cases. Where there had been no city, Congress decreed that there should be one – and lo! it was done. The same was true for Columbian College. Yet Congress was not God, and both from their earliest years were far from complete, in constant flux, and often in deep, if not hot, water. Times were not always good or easy. This is worth knowing about and might help to explain why the University has acquired such a strong entrepreneurial bent.

I think the movement of the institution from College Hill to downtown to Foggy Bottom is worth examining, and not just in maps, but on foot, because it gives an idea of the dynamism of both city and school over a shared life, now going on two centuries. It would be valuable, I think, to see what has become of the old locations of Columbian/GW. It will, for example, prove historically interesting to look at the site of the former Columbian Medical Department, now the home of the Hard Rock Caf? on 9th and E streets. This was the heart of downtown in the mid-19th century. Fifteen years ago, no one really wanted to walk through that neighborhood yet today it may be the hottest part of town.

Finally, it is important that our students understand the depth of commitment we have made over the years to the well-being of the District and our neighbors who live here and to understand the opportunities that await them to continue this tradition. The “Commitment Book” certainly tells some of the history; I think history has an even better story to tell.

The “GW+DC” booklet by itself would not, I think, be enough to carry the course, but rather could serve as point of department. There is a wealth of information in the University Archives and more of interest available from the Washington Historical Society, now housed in the City Museum of Washington. In fact, there is information all around us – because the shared history of The George Washington University and the District of Columbia is still living.

They say that both God and the devil are in the details, and I confess I have been avoided both by not offering details of the design, curriculum or implementation of the course. I simply aim here to propose and let the faculty dispose by creating the course I suggest and value so highly.

-The writer is president of The George Washington University.

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