Blogs > Cliopatria > Military History and Groupthink

Feb 14, 2006 3:53 am

Military History and Groupthink

A few days ago, Ralph linked to an important post by Tom Bruscino on the weak nature of military history in the academy—a field whose status, in terms of staffing, is even more dire than U.S. political, diplomatic, or legal history. Bruscino’s comments on the significance of military history are well taken, though I fear that the battle has been lost. It’s almost impossible to imagine most history departments, as currently constituted, electing to hire someone whose scholarship involves military history.

Bruscino was prompted to write in response to two H-LatAm list-serv requests by Victor Macias Gonzalez, a professor at Wisconsin-LaCrosse. “I'm a fish out of water . . . help!,” he wrote. “I am teaching my historiography seminar, and two of my 8 students want to work on Military History. My knee-jerk reaction, of course, was to object, but I want the students to work on topics that are close and dear to their hearts . . . any suggestions for germinal works on military history?” “Dare I think,” Macias Gonzalez continued, “there may be something in U.S. military history similar to what we have witnessed in our own field over the last 15-20 years with the influence of cultural history and gender?”

Bruscino, quite correctly, asked his readers to imagine a comparable request from another perspective:

Say I were to have a job interview for a position teaching American history with a focus on women's history, and I had to give a lecture on the passage of the 19th Amendment. I would go to women's historians for help. I would not say,"I've been asked to give a lecture on the 19th Amendment. My knee-jerk reaction, of course, was to object, but I want departments to teach subjects that are near and dear to their hearts. Is there a historiography on women's history that goes beyond burning bras?" I would not make unsubstantiated implications about the field. No, I would go hat-in-hand, honestly announcing my own ignorance, and assuming that there was a well-developed and serious academic literature.

It’s hard not to sense a bit of Mark Bauerlein’s “groupthink” effect in Macias Gonzalez’s comments, especially since none of the responders on H-LatAm seemed to consider the remarks unusual at all.

I was curious, however, as to why Macias Gonzalez felt necessary to make a public request. Wisconsin-LaCrosse isn’t a huge history department, but it does have nine full-time historians on staff. Moreover, its mission statement promises “a balanced world history curriculum, strengthened by faculty specialties in a wide range of time periods, cultures, geographical areas, and thematic approaches.” (emphasis added)

It turns out that the “range” in Lacrosse’s “thematic approaches” isn’t too wide at all. The department has an ancient historian, a Medievalist, and a historian of comparative religion (whose research focuses on mysticism). Apart from Macias Gonzalez, whose website describes his interests as “Hispanic Cultural Studies, particularly areas of Gender, Sexuality, Class, Masculinity in the Long Nineteenth Century, the Mexican Aristocracy, and Mexican Letters and Fine Arts," the department's other five professors have self-described interests in “comparative world history, visual culture, radical politics, cultural studies, historiography, critical theory”; US social history, focused on the 19th century; US women’s/social/cultural history, focused on the 20th century; Japanese history, with a research emphasis on the sex trade in postwar Japan; and a fifth whose website describes her interests as “Modern France, Chinese History, War and Society, War and Memory, War and Propaganda, Peace Movements.” One would think that this latter colleague would have satisfied Macias Gonzalez’s desire to see an approach to “U.S. military history similar to what we have witnessed in our own field over the last 15-20 years with the influence of cultural history and gender," as her interests are war memorials and"How to Create a 'Feminine Hero' in War." But, as his request implicitly conceded, such topics, whatever their intrinsic merit, are not military history at all.

So—all six of the department’s full-time historians who deal with the world since 1800 focus on themes of social or cultural history. Indeed, they seem to fit Macias Gonzalez’s conception of the historical ideal perfectly, demonstrating not only “the influence of cultural history and gender” in their work, but the hegemony of such concepts. Students wanting instruction in more traditional subfields in the discipline are, apparently, left to the mercy of H-net list-servs. At the very least, the department should change its mission statement to reflect the true “range” of its “thematic approaches.”

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John H. Lederer - 2/15/2006

Before I read your comment , I was wondering about the chicken-egg problem particularly with my memories of Asian history.

When I was an undergrad (the glaciers had just receded, and farming was the hot new thing , displacing mastodon hunting), I took a course in ancient Chinese history. I had little interest in the subject matter, but the class schedule was right and a roommate told me the professor was really good.

He was. Truly exceptional. My interest was sparked and I proceeded to take several classes in the area.

Somewhere in the vast economnic machinations of the mega-university I suppose my taking of several courses in the area caused a tiny nudge in the statistics which, combined with other little nudges, would eventually result in someone on some committee saying "Do we need another Asian history professor"?

But, had there not been a gifted professor to start the ball rolling, the response would likely have been "students aren't interested in Asian history".

John H. Lederer - 2/15/2006

I am not sure I understand your reference to "lines" or the process you describe.

Particularly in a smaller department there must be a struggle between "this is an area that ought be covered" and "nobody wants to teach it".

I am curious to what degree there is agreement on what constitutes a "good teacher" (not in subject matter, but just in teaching well), to what degree there are active attempts to inculcate this in younger professors, and to what degree it is weighted in the hiring process.

Is someone occasionally hired on the basis of being a good teacher who can teach most anything fairly well and thus can handle the problem of "something that ought be taught but nobody wants to teach it".

Jonathan Dresner - 2/14/2006

...because I'd like, just once, to hear an academic stand up and say "My field is overrepresented in hiring and publication, and I'd like to see lots more of some of the other stuff"

And because, as thin as my knowledge of military history may be from the standpoint of a full-bore military historian, I know that the Asian history background of the American and European scholars out there is at least that bad, if not considerably worse.

Sure, most history departments feel some pressure to include an Asianist in the mix nowadays, a nice touch of Eastern spice in an otherwise Western stew (sorry, I never liked the pie metaphor), but that's pretty weak coverage for the majority of the world's population (and, until a few centuries ago, the majority of the world's economy, too).

From where I sit, this whole brouhaha over military history isn't much more than a bunch of Western historians arguing over how to ignore the rest of the world, again. Military history has been pretty well integrated into Asian history for some time, in my opinion, and you guys need to catch up without squeezing us out.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/14/2006

Williams--where I taught before coming to Brooklyn--had a pretty good system on this type of issue. Our department was a little larger than Lacrosse's (13-15), but it was a standard liberal arts department.

The colleges allotted lines based on a standard of every prof. teaching 125 students per year. (The teaching load was 3-2.) So a department like Lacrosse's could choose to hire only people who did one type of history--but by doing so, the department would lose out on the opportunity to maximize its potential enrollment, and therefore would be on the short end of requests for new lines.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/14/2006

It would depend on the standpoint of analysis. From the state of the discipline today, I'd say the Allegheny situation of '72 is just as bad as the Lacrosse situation today--only, in effect, in reverse. From the standpoint of '72, there might be some rationalization for the Allegheny pattern--i.e., were most of the people hired in the 1940s/early 50s, etc., before the expansion of social history and the beginnings of development in Afr-Am and women's history? I don't see any rationalization in the Lacrosse hiring pattern other than a desire to exclude certain types of history from the faculty.

This gets at a broader point embedded in the discussions I've had with Tim that Ralph referenced: as the approach becomes increasingly one-sided in the larger schools that train new PhD's, it's unsurprising that we see staffing patterns like Lacrosse's.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/14/2006

"It did occur to me that at some level there is an implicit conflict in underlying assumptions about what forms history."

That's absolutely true, and it goes far beyond the standard ideological debates of our day.

One division that I struggle with is between the older, I might say classical, ideal of history as exemplar and the modern ideal of warts-and-all accuracy. The former can and often did degenerate into second-rate hagiography. It was rightfully rejected. But there have been times that I have wondered if the latter, performed badly, has bred some of the cynicism I see in the larger society.

John H. Lederer - 2/14/2006

Were it I acting in my self-interest, I would argue for a complimentary, but not competing area. In a furniture maker's guild, were I a table maker, I should be happy to have another chair maker, be likewarm about a desk maker, and hostile to another table maker.

It did occur to me that at some level there is an implicit conflict in underlying assumptions about what forms history.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/14/2006

I'm sure it happens, but "self-interest" is an awfully broad term. I can imagine someone arguing for diversity to protect their own intellecutal bailiwick and someone working against diversity for the preceived advnatages of an ideologically unified department.

John H. Lederer - 2/14/2006

do you think history faculty's decisions to hire in particular areas are influenced by individual self-interest?

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/14/2006

KC There is one part of Ralph's post that I would like to follow up on. It's this quote: "Whatever the distortions you see in the department at LaCrosse, they are certainly no worse than those at Allegheny College in 1972, when political, military, diplomatic, legal, constitutional history reigned."

Do you see the balance (or imbalance) that Ralph describes at Allegheny as equivalent to that at LaCrosse, better, or worse, from the standpoint of providing a range of intellectual opportunities for students?

Robert KC Johnson - 2/14/2006

I agree completely--it does seem like an odd assignment for an intro. historiography class.

Robert KC Johnson - 2/14/2006

I agree completely that Macias Gonzalez did the right thing in asking for suggestions given that he had no expertise in the topic. But the language he used was remarkable--unintentionally revealing of the sort of biases he undoubtedly would bring to personnel matters.

I also agree completely that in a small department like Lacrosse everyone has to stretch some, and no matter how you slice the pie, something's going to be left out. That's what makes their hiring patterns so remarkable--they haven't even gone through the pretense of trying to broaden their coverage thematically. They have--quite appropriately, I think--ensured coverage in not only the US but in other areas of the world. Yet, judging from the faculty members' own descriptions, every one of their modern historians is doing very similar types of history.

Jonathan Rees - 2/14/2006

I know this is kind of off topic, but I teach the same course all the time and there is no way I would assign an open-ended historiography paper. The students then just turn it into an ordinary research paper instead of trying to understand the point of the course. I have about 30 topics they can pick from for their papers (and a few of them are military topics.)

Ralph E. Luker - 2/14/2006

KC, It seems to me that Macias Gonzales did exactly the right thing: realizing that he had two students who wanted to work on topics that were not in his areas of expertise, he asked for suggestions and reactions, in the age of the internet, he got some good ones from Mark Grimsley and his readers at Blog Them Out of the Stone Age, including Bruscino.
You and Tim have debated these issues at length. I suspect that a part of your ships passing in the night is that you have focussed primarily on research university faculty, whereas Tim's perspective is on the liberal arts college faculty.
The latter, like LaCrosse, is likely to be relatively small, demanding that faculty members like Gonzales stretch themselves beyond their normal areas of expertise. But let me draw a parallel with the situation at LaCrosse.
I began teaching in a good small liberal arts college. When I began, we had a British historian (who taught nothing but that), two European historians (one military and one diplomatic), and four American historians (colonial, intellectual, diplomatic/naval, and social/intellectual). That's it. No Asia, no Africa, no gender, no class. We stretched to have an occasional offering in Latin America or the Middle East.
Whatever the distortions you see in the department at LaCrosse, they are certainly no worse than those at Allegheny College in 1972, when political, military, diplomatic, legal, constitutional history reigned.
I recall directing a terrific seminar paper by a young woman on "_Good Housekeeping_ Goes to War," a look at how the content of the magazine was affected by mobilization for World War II. She subsequently published a popular article on the subject. I was utterly without expertise in military history and had two colleagues who knew a whole lot more about it than I did. But, no matter how you slice the small pie in a small liberal arts college department, everyone's going to have to stretch themselves to serve the variety of students' special interests. Even if it has sacrificed its concentration in military history, Allegheny's department is better off now for having finally acknowledged that there _is_ an Asia and that there _is_ an Africa.

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