Matt Green grew up on the outskirts of a town of 432 people in Northern California. After college, he followed the siren song that many newly minted graduates find so seductive: Go East, young man.
Matt came to Washington, worked for a congressman and explored the city by bicycle. After heading off to Yale for grad school, he returned to Washington and is now an associate professor of history at Catholic University. For the past four years, he’s co-taught an undergraduate class called “Washington 101.”
A lot of people could benefit from taking the class, every member of Congress, for starters. They might better appreciate the strange political limbo in which the city and its citizens exist.
When the class was launched, the required reading came from a hodgepodge of disparate sources. There was no single textbook.
“Most books are either for tourists or they are extremely specialized, and we were looking for something in the middle,” Matt said.
So he and his co-teachers — Julie Yarwood, Laura Daughtery and Maria Mazzenga — decided to write their own. It’s also called “Washington 101.” (It’s published by Palgrave Macmillan and like a lot of textbooks is pricey: $100.)
Of course, all college students do all of their assigned reading, but if they wanted to read, say, just a single newspaper column about their textbook, rather than the textbook itself, what points should they keep in mind?
“I think that you can boil down the city and the region into three core scenes,” Matt said. “One is that national politics has had a huge influence on the city — unsurprisingly, since it’s the capital. The second is that being a capital has both advantages and disadvantages. And the third is that the city has been an essential cornerstone of the African American experience. These are really the three things that make D.C. distinct from other American cities.”
The book isn’t all wonkish politics. To use an educational buzzword, it’s multidisciplinary. One chapter discusses the city’s largely neo-classical architecture, arguing that the design can be spun to serve practically any viewpoint. The stone facades and column can help inspire great thoughts, or they can reflect a proto-fascism.
“That’s what’s remarkable about the style of architecture in Washington,” Matt said. “Some people see it and think this is beautiful. Some see it and think now they’re going to bust all the protesters’ heads. Other people see it and think it’s taking away our humanity.”
The architecture has served as a backdrop to history, not always in ways that were foreseen. The Lincoln Memorial, for example, was intended to symbolize national unity. But it was embraced by those who wanted to illustrate how little the Civil War had changed things for many Americans.
Starting with Marian Anderson’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial (after the opera singer was refused DAR Constitution Hall as a venue), “the civil rights movement changed the way the monument was interpreted,” Matt said.
And here’s something I didn’t know: Although for most of its history, Catholic University had a relatively liberal stance when it came to race, between 1914 and 1936, the school didn’t admit black students.
“It shows you how powerful segregation was in the 1910s in Washington,” Matt said.
The authors explore how members of Congress have used the District as both a way to score political points and as a laboratory for various experiments.
So, what can be done about that? Is statehood the answer?
“I don’t know if I should give my opinion, because I’m supposed to be an unbiased academic,” Matt said. “I don’t want people to think there’s an agenda behind this book. But let me say this: If residents of D.C. want to have more autonomy and self-governance and representation, the key is to find ways to make their argument persuasive to the constituents of members of Congress, because surveys have shown that a lot of Americans don’t really know that D.C. lacks full self-governance and representation in Congress. As long as that’s the case, members of Congress won’t face any electoral penalty for doing what they do.”
As Matt did, some percentage of Catholic’s graduates will decide to settle in Washington. Will taking “Washington 101” make them better Washingtonians?
“I’d like to think so,” Matt said. “Our hope as instructors and authors of this book is that students who stay in Washington will understand that it’s more than just a place to work, more than just the president and Congress, more than just tourist attractions. As we say in the book, it’s a living city. It has culture and history. That’s what makes it such a fascinating place.”
8 For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.