Friday, January 06, 2012

Hand Wringing for Military History

This post was originally published on November 22, 2010

Columnist Ed Hooper in today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution notes that Congress recently declared November to be "U.S. Military History Month." That's sort of interesting. The rest is sort of lame. Well, not sort of. Really lame.
[S]ailors and soldiers are returning to a nation that no longer embraces their service as a serious educational subject.... In the commercial marketplace of book sales, cable television and movie rentals, U.S. military history is booming.... [But] the news scholastically is dismal, especially in public schools. Military history has all but vanished from America’s educational mainstream. What was once regarded as a core subject in a classical education has become irrelevant. Teaching military history requires instructing students there are times when wars are justified. It requires defining traitors and heroes by academic guidelines. The politicizing of patriotism has neutered this subject. Sterile ideologies developed to avoid professorial jingoism have proven to be as responsible as anti-American ones in the demise of military history.

Smaller colleges are trying to fill the void, but the academic offerings are dwindling. Most Ivy League colleges don’t have a single faculty member who specializes in military history.

This absence trickled down to public school systems generations ago. Gone from U.S. textbooks are the commanders and the battles; the stories of remarkable citizen soldiers who walked away from the safety of their fields, stores and factories and stepped into history’s pages are forgotten. The sociological impacts of armed conflicts or political movements relating to U.S. wars now dominate classroom instruction.

Oh brother.

I was going to ignore this column, but I've received so many emails from people pointing it out to me that I guess I have to respond.

As long time readers of this blog are well aware, this sort of uninformed drivel has been around for years. The best known example is John J. Miller's "Taps for Military History", published in 2006 in The National Review, which produced this rebuttal from the military historians here at Ohio State, as well as several posts on this blog.

In the years since, any number of columnists have published rip-offs of Miller’s article. Hooper's differs only in that a) it is unusually thin gruel; and b) it focuses on K-12 education.

Note that Hooper offers not a shred of evidence re the demise of military history in K-12 schools: neither the extent to which it once existed (we had little or no prescribed military history in the courses I took in junior high or high school), nor the extent to which it exists now. My guess is that history and social studies teachers teach about military history (or not) in about the same measure that they always have. That is to say, I had a few history teachers in junior high and high school who included a lot of military history in their courses, and a few who did not. Judging by the teachers with whom I'm presently acquainted, that doesn't seem to have changed much.

In fact, I have some anecdotal evidence that points toward an interest in military history in K-12 education. The Foreign Policy Research Institute has done at least two symposia on teaching military history in public schools, each attended by about 40 K-12 teachers in person and available to many others on streaming video. And in just about every year for the last decade, I've been asked to speak to groups of K-12 teachers on military history or Civil War history, most recently in June of this year.

In terms of higher education, two interesting critiques of military history in academe--somewhat more nuanced than Miller's--appeared in The New Republic Online in 2007. They are here and here.

In 2009 the New York Times published a column on the supposed demise of traditional fields in history, nicely demolished on her blog by woman's historian Claire Potter.

As I've noted before--and as Hooper could have learned if he'd made the slightest stab at researching his column--the Society for Military History web site shows that there are currently 22 universities in North America with MA/PhD programs. Another 11 have MA programs. That's a considerable increase over the number of programs when I was a grad student two decades ago.

A number of departments that supposedly had military history programs back then--and were pointed out as examples of the demise of military history when military history faculty were not replaced--in fact did not have such programs. An example is Wisconsin. It used to be said that Wisconsin abandoned its military history program when its resident military historian, Edward "Mac" Coffman (who produced a string of superb military historians) wasn't replaced upon his retirement. But Mac was hired as an American historian. He produced PhDs in military history because a) the department respected his decision to shift focus to military history and b) its faculty supported him in training military history grad students. It's only in the past couple of years that Wisconsin actually created a military history position by hiring someone to fill the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair in Military History.

It's worth noting that in recent years, both the American Historical Review (the flagship journal of the American historical profession) and Journal of American History (the flagship journal of American historians) published historiographical essays on the state of military history. Again, this hardly sustains the picture of military history being driven from the academy.

Despite the above, however, the demise of military history theme is likely to remain with us because it serves as a useful arrow in the culture wars--and because it makes for a story in a way that a more accurate assessment does not. On two occasions I've been approached by reporters wanting to do stories ostensibly on the state of military history. When I supplied my perspective, they either ignored what I said or abandoned the story altogether.

All that said, the news about the state of academic military history isn't entirely good.

I do think a case can be made that military history isn't as highly regarded in academe as it might be. There are indeed a few academics who are implacably hostile to it. This partly a hold over from the antiwar protests of the Vietnam era. It also reflects the fact that many historians are politically engaged in their area of interest--woman's historians, for instance, are nearly always feminists--and they assume that we military historians must be politically engaged in the same way, which is to say that we must be right wing militarists.

Then too, our subject matter and methodologies are considered "traditional." This last is particularly inexcusable because it is based on ignorance. The boundaries of the field are expanding, and with them the methods and conceptual frameworks used to explore it But even conceding that some aspects of the field are perennial--strategic and operational history, for instance--the fact that a subject has long been studied does not reduce its importance, and the fact that some older methodologies remain well adapted to the study of military history should not be cause for derision. When academics dismiss a field out of hand because it is "traditional," they play right into the stereotype that academics are animated by what is trendy, not what is important.

Still worse, in a sense, are that many more historians aren't hostile to military history, but nonetheless see no reason to acquire an informed perspective on what the field actually studies. They just vaguely assume we do big battles and great captains. That's the part that's always bothered me. To be a good academic, I'm expected to be conversant with other fields. But historians in other fields feel no need to become conversant with mine.

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