Kevan Duve: Basking in controversy

Polarizing figures may be bad for politics, but they’ve been pretty good to academia – and to GW.

Our University has been the proud host to a number of controversial academics in recent weeks. Last Thursday, the academic “royal rumble” of the year took place on campus between conservative author David Horowitz and far-left professor Ward Churchill. I despise both men, but in their own ways, they’re doing us a favor. Yes, Horowitz is a modern-day McCarthyist, and yes, Churchill is an inflammatory, left wing Ann Coulter. Still we can thank these two for starting, even if inadvertently, the debate on whether professors’ political beliefs belong in the classroom.

Two weeks ago, GW also hosted one of the most controversial academics of the 1990s, feminist and cultural critic Camille Paglia, at its Honors Symposium. A week later, students and faculty were still debating her contested claims.

Many of Paglia’s positions in feminism, including her criticism of the “victimization” mentality, now seem pass?. Her attacks on academe, however, can still enrage or encourage many a professor or student.

Paglia believes that specialization among humanities professors has corrupted undergraduate education. With courses now as narrow as dissertation topics, Paglia says it is impossible for students to receive a broad liberal arts education.

She sees pre-professional programs as very successful but argues that the humanities, which now provide little spiritual sustenance thanks to an overdose on theory, have become dysfunctional. In Paglia’s ideal academic system, even future doctors, lawyers and presidents of the United States should be exposed to great works of art. This becomes an impossible task, she argues, when we have professors who deny there are even “great” works of art to begin with.

Her points, when stated succinctly, are mostly agreeable, but Paglia’s talent for turning an academic lecture into an exercise in shock discourse has agitated a sizable portion of the GW Honors community. While I am rooting for Paglia’s positions to prevail, it’s a welcome relief to see real debate taking place between students on questions of education.

Not to ignore the hippopotamus in the room, but GW’s own lighting rod of controversy, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, is retiring – in case you haven’t heard.

Perhaps it’s a bit too late for me to be penning him a love letter, but I respect Trachtenberg enormously – not only because he has tangibly improved GW, but also because he’s taken gutsy stances in the midst of criticism. He has often had the good sense to ignore carping idiots like me – and the grace to let them down easily when they’ve waded in over their heads.

Trachtenberg, like all great leaders, has relied on a certain sense of clairvoyance. He saw a campus that wasn’t here and he built it. (He also saw campuses in Virginia and Georgetown, too!) He sensed a community that wasn’t quite here and, with his gregarious personality, engendered it.

Some critics have said that as a result of Trachtenberg’s tenure, we were only united as a student community in our mutual bickering and bellyaching about GW. Personally, I’d rather see a university that is sometimes overly critical than one that is too complacent. I do believe every “stakeholder” wants GW to be a better place, and that’s what’s most important.

Consider that Trachtenberg’s most important contribution to the University may still be to come. His various efforts to re-imagine the academic calendar and curricular structure have yet to bear fruit, but a four-by-four curriculum is receiving serious consideration. I continue to believe that an overhaul like four-by-four is not only necessary to focus an incoherent curriculum, but also a standing invitation for GW to distinguish itself academically.

Yes, Trachtenberg has rollicked in controversy, but we’re a better school for it. I’m a firm believer in rocking the boat – and that’s a stance Trachtenberg, Paglia and I would passionately agree upon.

-The writer, a sophomore majoring in English, is a Hatchet columnist.

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