(January 20, 2020) A month prior to my Saturday presentation in Lexington, Virginia about Defending Confederate Monuments at the Lee-Jackson Day Annual Memorial, I asked Washington & Lee and the Virginia Military Academy (VMI) if I could also address their students. Notwithstanding the aid of an alumnus at each school, both turned me down although W&L allowed me to meet with one of their Civil War and Reconstruction Era history professors.
The day before the meeting I went to the W&L bookstore in order to examine the materials used in various classes, especially those chosen by the professor I would visit. Some choices were encouraging and thought provoking. A journalism class, for example, included William Zinsser’s On Writing Well (one of my favorite guides) and a history course of the Gilded Age included an Horatio Alger novel.
But the salient impression was my freedom to walk among the textbooks while carrying a briefcase. In order to minimize theft, most campuses do not permit anyone to enter the textbook stacks with a backpack or briefcase. In contrast, W&L has an honor system that is presently credited to Robert E. Lee. Alumnus and former TV news anchor, Roger Mudd, recalls that students were allowed to take exams in their own residences, unsupervised as long as they affixed an honor-pledge that they had neither given nor received aid on the exam. “The professors loved it because they could pass out their final exams and then leave,” Mudd said. “They didn’t have to monitor what was going on in the classroom as the students wrote their finals.”
While meeting with the professor the next day he confirmed that the honor system remains intact. When I later toured the Lee Chapel, I spent most of my time talking with a black security officer who also endorsed the code. He added that the students themselves were often more strict than the professors and administrators might have been. He also remarked that family wealth and status did not enable a guilty student to evade penalties. Prior to joining W&L he had worked thirty years as a security officer at a Virginia correctional institution for adolescents. His remarks suggested that some of the inmates might have ended up with better lives if they had been given a prior opportunity to experience a protracted honor code environment.
Unfortunately, W&L’s current administration seeks to reduce Lee’s memory in the school’s history as his critics misleadingly revise that history and assassinate his character. Presently, W&L’s website includes a vague claim that “the earliest evidence of an academic Honor System dates back to the 1840s,” which was about twenty years before Lee arrived. (No doubt many colleges have a no cheating rule, but still won’t let shoppers into the textbook area with a briefcase or backpack.) Nonetheless, Freshmen still sign the Honor Code (White) Book in a ceremony traditionally held in Lee Chapel. His legacy is undoubtedly what made the code an enduring and nonnegotiable standard. Unfortunately, the cherished code may not survive. Instead students may copy the examples of Lee critics within W&L who compromise honesty in order to create a corrupted narrative that conforms to a politically correct zeitgeist.
Sample my books at my My Amazon Author Page:
The Confederacy at Flood Tide by Philip Leigh
Trading With the Enemy by Philip Leigh
Lee’s Lost Dispatch & Other Civil War Controversies by Philip Leigh
Southern Reconstruction by Philip Leigh
U. S. Grant’s Failed Presidency by Philip Leigh