Maybe it can be taken for granted at times, but for 238 years Washington College has been a remarkable beacon of enlightenment and tolerance for the Eastern Shore.
Born as a testament of George Washington’s character and citizenship, the 10th oldest college in the country has been a source of exceptional scholarship and distinguished alumni fulfilling the founders’ vision to provide to the new nation citizens and leaders with the gift of critical thinking. The entire Eastern Shore is and should always be grateful for its existence, proud of its accomplishments, and supportive of its centuries-old mission.
The Spy certainly does so. Indeed, to be fair, this publication is a product of Washington College alumni. To paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Spy always has had, and will continue to have, a disproportionate bias in Washington College’s favor.
Nonetheless, the Spy must fulfill its own mission and speak critically about the institution when warranted. In fact, a review of our editorials will show a consistent concern for its future, including challenges with leadership, as it refines its mission for the 21st Century. We take no pleasure in these commentaries.
But the events and circumstances leading up to and after the institution’s abrupt cancellation of a student production of “The Foreigner” are alarming.
The use of the word “institution” is intentional here. While there is always an opportunity to point fingers at decision-makers, it is rarely helpful to the school or the community. The administrators and faculty involved in this rushed decision were well-intended. It is best to recognize that all organizations or governments (including the Spy) are capable of systemic folly of the highest order at times.
This was one of those times.
Published in 1983, the play tells a moral tale about confronting xenophobia and racism in a rural Georgia hotel against a backdrop of white supremacy and the KKK who work to take control of the lodge. The protagonists take the moral high ground and vanquish the evil ones from their lives in the final scene.
In short, if one was looking for smoke to yell “fire” in a crowded theater, this would not make the list. The College made a capital error in not allowing the play to be performed as scheduled.
The word folly may be too generous a term when recounting a series of events that led to this act of academic censorship. All of which was compounded by the fact that the play itself stands up to bigots and bullies. It stretches the intellectual imagination to see how this play would be any different from a performance of To Kill a Mockingbird with its racially charged scenes or the equally sinister Nazi characters in The Sound of Music.
Equally discouraging was the rationale that the play’s performance had become a safety issue, when the cancellation came several days before confirmed reports that a driver of a pickup truck had yelled racial slurs at students. The reports appeared to be retroactively conflated as a justification to cancel the play.
In the end, Washington College’s decision to cancel the play may be the byproduct of a complicated world of increasingly heightened political and cultural sensitivity. Nonetheless, censorship, in this case, was a sign of an institution out of sync with its core values. Every time censorship is used, it draws into question a school’s genuine commitment to the liberal arts’ highest purpose to have students think critically.
Adding to this botched process, the College has not provided any serious explanation as to why the concerns about the play were not raised during the 23-months between approval and the point at which the director, cast and crew were ready for dress rehearsal. It seems a substantial misuse of student and staff time and college treasure.
Beyond the fact that the College canceled the wrong play for the wrong reasons, it was the worst kind of intellectual retreat at the worst of times. As the school was shutting down The Foreigner, the nightly news was filled with footage of college students in Hong Kong bravely fighting in street battles to protect their right to free speech. It also came at a time when UC-Berkeley safely allowed the arch-conservative Ann Coulter to speak on campus.
As Washington College picks up the pieces from this most unfortunate moment, there is hope its leaders will share with its community what it has learned and what it must do to reinforce its commitment to liberal arts education and the training of free-thinking citizens.