Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Blog CXCIV (194): The SMH White Paper and the Future of Military History

Everyone once in a while—okay, it is probably more than "once in a while"—I have surfed the internet to see how colleagues are reacting to this blog, if they are reacting at all.  Most people seem to appreciate the effort, even if they disagree with certain arguments.  I chuckled a bit at a comment that went something like: "useful, even if there is too much military history for my taste."

I chuckled because I am not a military historian; I am a diplomatic historian.  I understand why people make the mistake, I have worked at three schools in the professional military education system, and of those five books displayed on the right side of this blog, four look like military history at first glance.  (Actually only one is military history; three are diplomatic history; and one is film history).  More to the point, the comment reflects the low status of military history in the profession.

The Society for Military History is aware of their poor standing with their peers, and is trying to combat that status.  To that end, the organization authorized a whitepaper entitled "The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy.” The co-authors were Tami Davis Biddle of the U.S. Army War College and Robert M. Citino of the University of North Texas.  This project seems designed to reach key decision makers like college and university administrators, journalists, and politicians.

They quickly acknowledge the less than ideal standing of the field.  "The phrase 'military history' still stirs conflicted emotions or hostile reactions among those who teach history in the nation’s colleges and universities."  There are some reasons for that reaction.  "The challenges facing those who study war extend beyond the fact their terrain is challenging, morally-freighted, and emotionally-draining."  There is, however, more to it than that.  "Part of the problem stems from the way that military history is, and has been, identified and categorized inside American popular culture." It is a very popular topic with the general public.  "Anyone walking into a large bookstore will find, in most cases, a sizable section labeled 'military history.' Some of the work located there will be of high qualityserious, deeply researched, and conforming to the highest scholarly standards; but some of it will consist of shallow tales of adventure and conquest, written for an enthusiastic but not terribly discerning audience. Some of it will cover esoteric topics that appeal to those with highly particularized interests, such as military uniforms, weapons types, or aircraft markings."  These points are basically correct.  A point they did not make is that most military history in the United States is land-centric.  The U.S. Army is the most studied institution.  In fact, the Confederate States Army has been the subject of more writing than the U.S. Navy, even though the sea service has a much longer record for individuals to examine.  Biddle and Citino also note, "Popular military history varies immensely in quality, and there is a great gulf between the best and the worst it has to offer. Outside the subfield, all this work tends to be lumped together, however, and academics with little exposure to serious scholarship in the field may assume that it is a discipline defined by the weaker side of the spectrum."

Despite being less than popular with their colleagues, Biddle and Citino argue that military historians might be the best asset a department has to offer.  "Our students’ desire for knowledge creates an important opportunity for Departments of History. The late recession has produced a drop in humanities majors as students seek courses that seem more likely to produce an immediate payoff in terms of jobs and wages. Legislative budget cuts have forced even state schools to conform to a tuition-driven model, and departments that cannot attract a sufficient number of students can expect hard times to get harder." All of that is true, but that fact that students often vote with their feet or their tuition is something that decision makers should consider. "University college administrators, particularly college deans and chairs of History Departments, may find some relief in the appeal of military history. Courses in military history tend to fill, not only with history majors and minors, but also with students from other disciplines who are interested in the field. And because military history intersects regularly with the profession’s other subfields, it can serve as an ideal gateway to the other specializations any given History Department has to offer. It may, as well, lure back some of the students who have been drawn away to political science, international relations, and public policy departments."

Your average faculty member might easily dismiss such considerations as a form of academic pandering or whoring.  Administrators—good or bad—cannot. If classes generate heavy enrollments, they make it possible for departments to offer classes that generate smaller numbers; they also make it possible to employ graduate students as graders and teaching assistants. 

There are slightly more noble reasons as well to employee military historians.  "It is incumbent upon those who train our college and university students—our next generation of civilian leaders—to address the civilian side of the equation. They must teach today’s students about the role of the military in a democracy, the blunt character of military force, and the lasting consequences of the decision to wage war." That argument seems more aimed at the journalists, and politicians, but Biddle and Citino are basically correct.  "To ignore the study of such an enterprise is, in the end, corrosive of the Constitutional principles that legitimize choice and action in the American system of government. The strong body of literature produced by contemporary military historians, and the knowledge and pedagogical skills that they bring to the classroom, can surely help in this crucial task."

It is hardly a surprise that the Society for Military History commissioned this essay.  The SMH is a good organization full of a lot of academic innovation.  The first academic conference I attended in a foreign country was its annual meeting in 2001.  It is also one of the few American scholarly organizations to elect a foreign national teaching at a foreign institution of higher education to serve as its president.  It is also a well-run and administered.  I would guess that over half of the members of the organization have jobs that we currently call "alternative academic."  As a result, they are well-run because many of their members have day-to-day work responsibilities unlike your average academic.

Military history has never, ever been popular with the historical profession.  That was a lesson I learned when I researched and wrote on Theodore Roosevelt's tenure as president of the AHA.  There was no golden time when it was an accepted and respected sub-field.

This paper is a creative attempt to leverage the strengths of the SMH and/or military history.  Like it or not administrators make the real decisions on which departments will get the funding to create new faculty positions or replace old ones. Faculty types tend to get angry and personalize decision making when deans fail to act according to how they believe they should; which is the only possibly correct thing to do, period.  The thing is, though, that a dean is never going to be able to weight the intellectual merits of one subfield in history against another, or work in history versus sociology versus English literature when they are a political scientist. In the end, it will be administrative issues that will carry the day. It seems likely that outsiders (deans, board of trustee members, etc.) will be swayed more by what Biddle and Citino contend than history faculty, and those decision makers are the ones that are really important in the end.  It should be interesting to see what comes of it in the months to follow.

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