University decisions shouldn’t be based on George Washington’s legacy

Most students’ experiences at GW probably have nothing to do with America’s founding father and our university’s namesake, George Washington. But recently, some critics denounced the University for not following what they think would have been Washington’s desires.

Two months ago, the history department changed the history major requirements: Majors no longer have to take foreign language classes – or classes on European, North American and U.S. history – so that students have more flexibility to specialize in specific topics or regions. And while the move isn’t groundbreaking, taking away the U.S. history requirement led to an outcry from right-wing media outlets and social media users.

It’s common for universities to change the requirements of majors over time, and less than one-third of highly ranked colleges require history majors to take U.S. history. In fact, neither Yale University or Harvard University require their history majors to take U.S. history. But GW’s curriculum change drew continued controversy until it made national news, largely because GW is named after our most famous founding father. Conservative sites like the The Blaze, Breitbart and National Review all commented on the change.

But modern-day decisions should not be made based on what we think our namesake would have wanted, and history majors won’t be “under- and ill-informed” workers, like The Blaze claimed. Rather, University decisions should be made and adapted based on the time period and on what students need. Furthermore, decisions should be inspired by what Washington really wanted for students – a well-rounded education in the nation’s capital.

It seems like the backlash had more to do with timing than it did with people’s legitimate issues with the history department. The new U.S. presidential administration has been focused on nationalism, so it may seem like not forcing students to take an introductory or higher level U.S. history course at a school named after our nation’s founder is unpatriotic. But if anything, GW is joining the ranks of other universities that realize a history major is not just for people hoping to go into U.S. history. Students should be able to study what they are interested in, and it’s OK if that’s not American history.

It’s inappropriate to expect that a university either founded by or named after a historical figure should make modern day decisions based on the unknown thoughts that figure may have had. If a university were to follow a founder’s desires to the letter, then there are groups of students – like women and minorities – who might not be allowed to attend the institutions. Our country’s founders were pioneers, and universities should be too. GW and schools in similar situations should focus on being inspired by what our founders or namesakes did in the face of adversity – not stick to what they’ve always done because it’s easier.

GW isn’t the only university to deal with the pressures associated with founding fathers. The University of Virginia has had to deal with negative realities of being associated with Thomas Jefferson. While Jefferson founded the university in 1819, students today have pushed back against using Jefferson’s quotes or symbols in official university announcements. Earlier this year, students argued that the university’s president, Teresa Sullivan, should stop quoting Jefferson in emails because Jefferson was a slave owner.

But one of the benefits of being associated with a historical figure is that a university can align itself with the figure for positive things, while distancing the university from negative realities. The University of Pennsylvania has been able to do this with Benjamin Franklin. Franklin founded the school in 1749 on the principles of an interdisciplinary education. Because UPenn continues to focus on this principle today, the university can balance what Franklin made clear he intended for the school, while also making autonomous decisions for particular classes or departments.

Being named after George Washington is something GW can be proud of without it affecting the daily lives of students. Changing the history curriculum is a progressive step to teach students the importance of living in a globalized world – and these decisions don’t include founders or namesakes of universities.

The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Melissa Holzberg and contributing opinions editor Irene Ly, based on discussions with managing director Eva Palmer, homepage editor Tyler Loveless, contributing sports editor Matt Cullen and copy editor Melissa Schapiro.

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