On civility at Washington and Lee

Conley Hurst

Soon after the end of the American Civil War, the trustees of Washington College invited the illustrious General Robert E. Lee to journey to Lexington to serve as the school’s president. Initially, Lee was apprehensive. As the military leader of the late southern cause, Lee thought he might be too divisive a figure to make any positive impact. Nonetheless, he decided to accept the offer and see what good he could do.

The post-war America that Lee knew was one nation in name only. The North and South were as divided as ever. But, unlike many of his fellow southerners, Lee believed that a tone of reconciliation and cooperation must be adopted to bridge this divide. He believed that “it should be the object of all to avoid controversy, to allay passion, [and] give full scope to reason and to every kindly feeling.

In a time of extraordinary divisiveness, he believed that civility should prevail.

After he arrived in Lexington, a student asked then-President Lee for a book of the college rules. Lee responded that, at Washington College, there is “but one rule…and it is that every student be a gentleman.”

These stories are all a part of W&L lore. We know them by rote, we are eager to explain them to any curious visitor or family member and they influence our decisions on a daily basis, if only indirectly.

At W&L, this sense of tradition pervades our campus culture. The Speaking Tradition, the Honor System, the Washington & Lee Swing. The list goes on. None of these, however, is as important or as unique in our contemporary age as the dedication to civility first established by Lee all those years ago. We respect one another. We value civil discourse. We might not always agree, but we value our ability to disagree and come together at the end of the day as fellow members of the same community. Our adherence to this tradition is not always perfect. But, frequently, we tend to unite in quiet but firm protest when we see this civility abandoned within our community.

Communities like ours are a dying breed. Much of our contemporary society is divisive, abrasive and combative. Just look at our extraordinary election cycle. Donald Trump has mastered the insult as a political device. We’ve seen violence at campaign rallies. We’ve seen threats to imprison political opponents. Surely this combative divisiveness won’t be tampered only by the passing of Election Day.

Of course, American political discourse has never been particularly civil. Just take a look back at the rhetoric used in the 1790s or the 1820s. Nonetheless, today’s political culture is as divisive as it has been in almost any of our lifetimes. No longer is it enough to only defeat one’s policy ideas. Instead, ad hominem attacks have become business as usual.

In this ever-growing political culture of insults, divisiveness and gridlock, I believe that we in the Washington and Lee community have a unique responsibility. Though we are imperfect, we continue to dedicate ourselves to a tradition of civility. We can never let go of this because it is, I believe, our most treasured asset. Without civility, the Honor System would fall apart, and our sense of community would become a mere construct without any substance.

Some like to say that we’re living in a “bubble” here at W&L. That may be true. But why can’t we take what we learn in this “bubble” and bring it to the outside world? Why can’t we set an example of respect and civility for our fellow citizens? In fact, I believe that W&L students are particularly well suited to make a difference in the “real” world around us. We know the value of civility because we live it every day.

By holding on to our most important tradition and carrying it out into the world around us, we are remaining “not unmindful” of a more hopeful future.