There's More War in the Classroom Than You Think

tags: curriculum, military history, culture war, teaching history

William I. Hitchcock is the William W. Corcoran Professor of History at the University of Virginia and the director of GAGE (Governing America in a Global Era). @GAGE_UVA 

Meghan V. Herwig is a Ph.D. student in history and the Brian Layton Blades Jefferson Fellow at the University of Virginia and was the 2020-2021 GAGE Fellow. Her dissertation examines why and how, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the world’s major economies in North America, Europe, and East Asia overcame protectionist pressures to construct an open global trade system.

History is dying on college campuses. At least, that’s the assessment of some leading historians. Majors are plummeting and students are leaving college without a firm grasp of the foundations of the modern world. The cause of this decline is hard to pin down. Some scholars believe the fall-off can be ascribed to an aversion toward political history, while in a January 2021 opinion piece, the distinguished author Max Hastings declared that the very study of war has been killed off on college campuses.

In his provocative essay titled “American Universities Declare War on Military History,” Hastings argues that the study of war in U.S. universities is in “spectacular eclipse.” Historians today, averse to military affairs, are concerned principally with, in his words, “culture, race and ethnicity.” So great is this “revulsion from war history,” Hastings believes, that scholars refuse to teach, “or even allow their universities to host,” courses on war. Hastings rues the alleged decline of war studies because he believes in the old adage that the best way to avoid conflict is to study it.

Hastings is a great military historian, but the portrait he paints in his article is inaccurate. Whatever the cause of the decline in history majors, it is not due to a lack of classes on war-related themes. Indeed, the evidence we have collected shows the enduring presence of courses on war in leading American history departments. Based on a detailed examination of course offerings over a six-year period, we conclude that the teaching of war and conflict is doing quite well in history departments across the United States. Furthermore, courses in the field are taught mostly by tenure-track faculty; they are taught at both the survey and advanced level; and even using a fairly narrow definition of what constitutes “war studies,” the subject matter covered is wide-ranging across the modern era. The American Revolutionary War, the U.S. Civil War, the two world wars, regional conflicts like the Vietnam War, and even the “Global War on Terror” all appear consistently in history department offerings across the country, as do courses in the general category of “military history.” Surely, those of us who work in the field would welcome even more course-offerings. But in no way have historians “declared war” on this field.

To test the hypothesis about the death of war studies, we started with U.S. News and World Report’s list of the top 75 universities in the United States. Limiting ourselves to these schools unfortunately omitted some excellent institutions known for their strengths in military history such as the University of Kansas (ranked number 124 by U.S. News and World Report), Kansas State University (170), and North Carolina State University (80). We also did not include the service academies in our study. Furthermore, Ohio State University, which has long boasted depth in the field, does not make available its course catalogue by semester, making it hard to know when courses have been taught. So the picture nationally is surely a good bit better than our findings reveal. Of our top 75 schools, 50 publish their course offerings by semester going back to fall 2018, and 39 publish that data going back to fall 2015. Our single most important conclusion, which decisively contradicts the Hastings thesis, is this: Every single one of the 50 schools we were able to examine offers history courses on some aspect of war.

What is more, the average number of war-related courses offered in these 39 history departments each year is 6.4. That may not sound like very many, but it constitutes on average 7 percent of the total annual offerings — surely a higher share than, say, courses on the histories of India, China, Africa, or the Middle East, to say nothing of classics, economic and business history, and the history of science, among other subjects. The most commonly taught courses that deal with war are on general military history and World War II, closely followed by those on the U.S. Civil War and courses on America in the world or U.S. foreign relations. Next in line are those on the Cold War. One might argue that courses on the Cold War should not count as “military history.” But any survey of the Cold War will normally include extensive study of military institutions, intelligence, strategy, and leadership as well as active wars from Korea to Vietnam to the Gulf War. Given this data, it is hard to claim that U.S. universities have declared war on military history. In fact, courses on war are everywhere.

Read entire article at War on the Rocks

comments powered by Disqus