Peter Berkowitz: Our Elite Schools Have Abandoned Military History

The study of war elucidates some of mankind’s noblest virtues and bitterest vices. So why do colleges seem afraid of it?

Source: WSJ, 4-30-11

The Union’s victory in the Civil War, whose opening shots were fired by Confederate forces 150 years ago this month, established that the United States, which had been conceived in liberty, would endure as a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Many college students will hear in that assertion echoes of President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Few will know much about the bloody three-day battle of Gettysburg that Lincoln’s revered speech commemorated.

There is little chance today’s college students will study the strategy that underlay Gen. Robert E. Lee’s decision to lead the Army of Northern Virginia on a second invasion of the North, or the tactics that Gen. George Gordon Meade and his commanders of the Army of the Potomac adopted to repel the attack. They are probably no better versed in any other Civil War battle.

One reason for this ignorance is that our bastions of liberal education barely teach military affairs. No doubt the same post-Vietnam hostility to all things military that impelled faculties and administrations to banish ROTC from campus is a major factor.

To be sure, military history continues to command popular audiences through best-selling books and television documentaries. It is taught at the service academies and flourishes at a few, mostly public, universities including the University of North Carolina, Ohio State, Texas A&M and the University of Wisconsin.

Where it is taught, courses in military history attract impressive numbers of students. But as military historian Edward M. Coffman (professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin) notes, only about 5% of America’s approximately 14,000 history professors identify military history as an interest.

The study of military affairs has not disappeared from the college curriculum, yet the neglect is dramatic. In history departments, survey courses may discuss the social, political and economic dimensions of wars. But the traditional topics of military history—how wars begin, how they are waged, and how they end; the cultural foundations, the recruitment and training of military forces; logistics, tactics and strategy—receive scant attention.

As for courses that focus on military affairs, one would be hard-pressed to find more than one or two courses offered during the 2010-2011 academic year among the approximately 80 courses that Harvard’s history department listed for undergraduates, the 150 undergraduate courses listed by Yale’s history department, and the 130 classes listed by Stanford’s history department. Yale’s wonderful “Studies in Grand Strategy”—an interdisciplinary course developed by Profs. John Lewis Gaddis, Charles Hill and Paul Kennedy—stands nearly alone….READ MORE

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