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Noah Webster’s name is a household word — literally. He was the republic’s first bestselling author and the father of the copyright laws in the United States that protect the hard work and creative effort of every American writer, artist and composer. His spellers and dictionaries provided the foundation for the growth of an American literary culture (he is the reason we spell “music” without a “k” and “favor” without a “u.”). A passionate advocate of educational reform including improved conditions for students and teachers alike, Webster was also one of the principal founders of Amherst College. One of Webster’s critics scornfully referred to him as a mere “retailer of nouns and pronouns.” One of my former students summed up Webster’s reply: “Meritocratic commerce must replace hierarchical class structures as a defining feature of the Republic.” As Webster observed, “education is the first business of a society.” Webster received an honorary doctorate from Yale in 1823.
Webster’s father mortgaged the family farm so Noah could attend Yale. Attending Yale during the American Revolution, in 1775, Noah joined a procession of fellow students in a drill down College Street to honor a visiting George Washington, who had just been appointed commander-in-chief of the Continental army. Webster led the group, playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on his flute.
In the Webster College of Yale’s future, students might reenact such a procession or celebrate “dictionary days” with various forms of word play. Yale President Ezra Stiles said of Webster: “from him I learn.” In March 1801, Webster sent Thomas Jefferson a critique of the newly elected president’s recent inaugural address. Noah Webster may have lacked tact, but isn’t that the kind of critical thinking we wish to encourage?
This choice would re-emphasize Yale’s role in American history and culture. It would also reinforce our ties to Connecticut and resonate deeply with the history of Yale. Webster was a strong advocate of toleration; universal public education, including for women; the separation of church and state; equal protection under the law; and the abolition of slavery. He has been suggested twice. I think his time has come.
Jay Gitlin is a professor of history. Contact him at email@example.com.