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Military history courses losing the battle in universities

In this time of war, do Americans know enough about the country’s military history? Are Americans informed to make an educated decision when they choose a commander in chief in November?

“Not likely,” most military historians say. The field--which covers strategy, operations and politics relating to war--has been squeezed out of university curriculums over the last 40 years, leaving a void in America’s education, according to recent studies and interviews with historians.

Few civilian universities teach military history courses in any depth, asserts Richard K. Betts, director of the Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s a field that is out of favor in the academic history profession,” he said.

The number of professorships available to military historians has been decreasing for decades. “In a good year,” said Mark Grimsley, a professor of military history at the University of Ohio, “there are maybe two to three positions available to military historians who are specialists.”

Grimsley estimates that there are 200 to 250 positions available each year for historians of all specialties.

The state of military history in academia will be the topic of a panel discussion at a Society of Military History conference in Ogden, Utah, in April. A professor who has studied military history curriculum in universities will present her findings, which show that even where military affairs are taught it is usually in the context the society's culture.

To be sure, military history is certainly thriving at the country's service academies, and the U.S. military itself employs more than 200 historians.

At any given time, West Point has up to 20 professors teaching military history, counting officers and civilians. They also host summer seminars for 30 graduate students on military history. “It’s a way of helping to bring people together to share ideas and foster the field,” said Maj. Steven Barry, a history professor at West Point.

The golden age of military history curriculum was during the late 19th and early 20th century, when history classes emulated the historical tradition of Herodotus and Thucydides. Such classes concentrated on tactics and strategy, as well as politics.

After the 1960s though, the Vietnam War and antipathy towards the American government created a backlash against the study of the military, said Geoffrey Wawro, a military historian at the University of North Texas.

“What you see in today’s universities is an artificial and malicious neglect of military topics,” he said. “It’s an unintelligent dismissal of military history as a legitimate field of knowledge.”

The baby boomer generation of historians found new topics. “Young, progressive scholars began teaching culture, disenfranchised groups, race, class and gender,” said Wawro.

Many military historians say the atrophied state of the field could have unfortunate, perhaps even dangerous consequences for the U.S.

Without knowing the history and context of past wars, Americans are likely to think current conflicts are unique and “epoch-shattering,” said Victor A. Hanson, a resident scholar at the Hoover Institute.

Many people today tend to think of war as the result of miscommunication and misunderstanding rather than an innate human pathology, said Hanson. The result is that Americans begin to underestimate the importance of “preparedness, deterrence and vigilance.”

John Mack Faragher is a professor of American history at Yale University and the author of many history textbooks and encyclopedias. Faragher said he believes a significant issue is that even as there is more history to study, history textbooks stay the same size.

“Anything that gets added to the canon means that something has to be dropped,” said Faragher. “When you add women’s history, something else has to go. The treatment of wars and battle was pretty much replaced by these new fields.”

Of the 60 faculty members at Yale’s history department, only one professorship has military history in its title, he added.

While there are few analyses of military history curriculums in universities, in 2004, retired University of Wisconsin military historian Edward Coffman examined the top 25 history departments as ranked by U.S. News and Report. Out of the 1,000 history professors teaching at these institutions, he found only 21 cited expertise in military history.

The preliminary results of a survey conducted by Dale Clifford of the University of North Florida to be presented at the Society of Military History's conference in April produced more subtle distinctions. Sixty-four history department chairs from around the country said they offered at least one annual survey class that covered war.

However, most of these courses focused on war as it related to society rather than on strategy and operations. So, while 54 respondents offered courses focusing on the Civil War, 40 classified the course as being about “war and society” rather than as “military history.”

“One cannot just say, ‘There are x-professors now and y-then,’” said Hanson. “Rather, the change is far more insidious, as the entire curriculum in history has shifted to areas in which traditional military history is no longer prominent.”

For his part, Yale’s Farraghar believes the pendulum may swing the other way. “At a time of war, I expect that military history will make a comeback in the curriculum. But it will do so under the broader and deeper understanding of war and its affects on society,” he said.

Grimsley of the University of Ohio said the critique that military history is narrowly focused is based on “breathtaking ignorance.” Knowledge of military history is an important component of being a good citizen, he said.

Students today he said, "have very little understanding of what a republic is and the responsibility of citizens,” said Grimsley. “And, they don’t have a sense of how fragile a republic is.”

E-mail: mo2305@columbia.edu