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Sunday, September 29, 2013
Jonathan Daniels, perhaps Virginia Military Institute’s best-known literature major, quoted poet William Wordsworth in his 1961 VMI valedictory address.
“The clouds that gather round the setting sun/Do take a sober coloring from an eye/That hath kept watch o’er man’s mortality,” Daniels read to his graduating class.
Daniels’ aside on mortality became all the more poignant four years later when he was killed protecting a 16-year-old girl from a white supremacist’s shotgun in Hayneville, Ala.
Since his passing, VMI has done much to venerate the memory of the Episcopal martyr with statues and awards.
What institute leadership has chosen to ignore is his education.
Last year, the Virginia Military Institute decided — largely in secret — to deny Daniels’ study of literature to future cadets in favor of a curriculum focused on the study of rhetoric.
This was a grave error.
Ignoring literature not only removes essential elements of a well-rounded education — which institute officials will breathlessly tell you is in the top 25 percent of liberal arts schools in the country, according to U.S. News and World Report — but also denies future military leaders tools they need.
VMI builds leaders, and important historical voices should inform their direction. We continue to appreciate the lessons of order, structure and chain of command; however, the most important lesson we took away from VMI is the ability of the system to strip away pretense and get to the core human element. This is what literature helps us grasp and gives meaning behind the structure of rhetoric.
While we agree rhetoric and composition are an integral part of any English curriculum, the study and discovery of literature shows us the power of perspective and understanding of the human condition. This gives us reason to lead and the conviction to influence causes.
Rhetoric and composition are important tools that are helpful to express your worldview — not to find it, like Daniels did.
Intensive study of powerful works by the likes of William Shakespeare, Chinua Achebe, Ayn Rand and the warrior poet Archilochus have given way to a syllabus better suited to the needs of a public relations firm than an academic institution.
A read of VMI’s rhetoric syllabus outlines an education that presupposes an idea or point of view and skips over the real work of analysis to a series of wan composition tricks.
Instead of cadets struggling to comprehend the nuance of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Breakfast of Champions,” they will likely produce scores of well-meaning and earnest 500-word essays on abortion and the death penalty that will be picked apart — not for understanding of a topic, but for their adherence to rigid rhetorical guidelines.
In fact — according to the new syllabus for the rhetoric major — the breadth and width of English literature will be contained in two courses: American and British Literary Traditions.
Other colleges and universities have switched literature departments to rhetoric to some degree of protest, but VMI’s shedding of literature is more important than an academic squabble and has real-world implications.
The roles of U.S. soldiers, Marines, airmen and sailors have never been more dependent on critical thought and analysis. Young lieutenants and captains routinely operate further and further from higher command and have been given more responsibility to make life-or-death calls in combat in roles previously given to those with graduate degrees.
One active-duty supporter of this commentary wrote from his duty station in Afghanistan, “I have taken the critical thinking skills that I once used to examine works of literature at VMI, and have since used them to examine both tactical and strategic problems for the military and our partners in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
VMI’s intimate connection to the U.S. military and its leaders elevates the institute’s literary abandonment beyond our post into a real problem for future graduates, who will be armed with rhetorical tricks instead of analytical skills.
We will leave it to others to decide if the mass departure of the majority of the highly talented literature faculty — requiring most to sign agreements not to disparage VMI — was justified.
We will also leave it to others what actions the VMI community should take to address the future leadership of the school.
What we are asking of alumni and friends of VMI is to voice your concern to the institute and oppose this change in curriculum that damages its fundamental core.
We want VMI leaders to embrace the entire legacy of Jonathan Daniels and the education that helped make him remarkable, and not pick and choose the parts they wish to remember.
Editor’s note: The authors wrote on behalf of a group that includes 13 other alumni, six of them active duty.
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