Lee Accepts Position as President of Washington College
After the American Civil War, General Robert E. Lee turned down several financially tantalizing offers of employment that would merely have traded on his name, and instead accepted the post of college president for three reasons.
First, he had been superintendent of West Point, so higher education was in his background. Second, and more important, he believed that it was a position in which he could actually make a contribution to the reconciliation of the nation. Third, the Washington family were his in-laws: his wife was the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. Lee had long looked on George Washington as a hero and role model, so it is hardly surprising that he welcomed the challenge of leading a college endowed by and named after the first president.
Arguably Lee's finest achievement was transforming a small, not particularly distinguished Latin academy into a forward-looking institution of higher education ("not unmindful of the future"). He established the first school of professional journalism education in the country and he added both a business school and a law school to the college curriculum, under the conviction that those occupations should be intimately and inextricably linked with the liberal arts. That was a radical idea: Journalism and law had always been considered technical crafts, not intellectual endeavors, and business was even worse. Yet Lee's concept has become universally accepted, and today it would seem subversive if anyone suggested that education in journalism, business, and law should be kept separate from the liberal arts and sciences.
Lee was also the father of an Honor System and a speaking tradition at Washington College that continue to the present time. And, ardent about restoring national unity, he successfully recruited students from the north as well as the south.
Lee accepted the position as President of Washington College in August 1865. He had turned down more lucrative business offers. Lee accepted the position primarily because it gave him a significant role in rebuilding the South.
Lee appreciated the traditional studies of the classics, of Latin and Philosophy but knew that the devastated South was in need of competently trained professionals. Lee stated: “The importance of a more practical course of instruction in our schools and colleges… will tend to develop resources and promote the interests of the country.”
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