Interrogating the Project of Military History

October 25 - Sometimes a book can be a profound enough influence that you internalize its message thoroughly--so thoroughly, in fact, that you forget it came from a book in the first place.  Five years ago I read Teaching to Transgress:  Education as the Practice of Freedom, by bell hooks.  When I stumbled across it again today, it suddenly dawned on me that in many ways this blog is one result of having encountered that book.

In the introduction, hooks talks about her earliest educational experience:

Almost all our teachers at Booker T. Washington were black women.  They were committed to nurturing intellect so that we could become scholars, thinkers, and cultural workers--black folks who used our "minds."  We learned early that our devotion to learning, to a life of the mind, was a counter-hegemonic act, a fundamental way to resist every strategy of white racist colonization.  Though they did not define or articulate these practices in theoretical terms, my teachers were enacting a revolutionary pedagogy of freedom that was profoundly anticolonial.  Within these segregated schools, black children who were deemed exceptional, gifted, were given special care.  Teachers worked with and for us to ensure that we would fulfill our intellectual destiny and by so doing uplift the race.  My teachers were on a mission.

Attending school, hooks continued, was "sheer joy."  That changed abruptly with racial integration.  "Knowledge was suddenly about information only about information only.  It had no relation to how one lived, behaved.  It was no longer connected to the antiracist struggle."  Indeed, her now-mostly white teachers reinforced, intentionally or advertently, racist stereotypes.  hooks grew to hate school, and even in university and graduate school she continued to experience classes as environments in which she was expected merely to acquire information and conform.  A chance encounter with the work of Brazilian thinker Paulo Freire introduced her to critical pedagogy and suddenly, explosively, restored to her the sense of education as a revolutionary experience.

Teaching is a performative act.  And it is that aspect of our work that offers the space for change, invention, spontaneous shifts, that can serve as a catalyst drawing out the unique elements in each classroom.  To embrace the performative aspect of teaching we are compelled to engage "audiences," to consider issues of reciprocity.  Teachers are not performers in the traditional sense in that our work is not meant to be a spectacle.  Yet it is meant to serve as a catalyst that calls everyone to become more and more engaged, to become active participants.

* * *

When I wanted teaching to be my career, I believed that personal success was intimately linked with self-actualization.  My passion for this quest led me to interrogate constantly the mind/body split that was so often taken to be a given.  Most professors were often deeply antagonistic toward, even scornful of, any approach to learning emerging from a philosophical standpoint emphasizing the union of mind, body, and spirit, rather than the separation of these elements.

By contrast, "engaged pedagogy" values student expression.  Moreover:

When education is the practice of freedom , students are not the only ones who are asked to share, to confess.  . . . It is often productive if professors take the first risk, linking confessional narratives to academic discussions so as to show how experience can illuminate and enhance our understanding of academic material. . . . Progressive professors working to transform the curriculum so that it does not reflect biases or reinforce systems of domination are most often the individuals willing to take the risks that engaged pedagogy requires and to make their teaching practices a site of resistance.

Sir Michael Howard

Military precision

Sir Michael Howard: The military historian Professor Sir Michael Howard believes the biggest breakthrough in his field has been the study of "total history"; history studied in real depth and width.

Liz Ford
Thursday November 8, 2001


Professor Sir Michael Howard studied and taught at the University of Oxford. He did not work for a doctorate as his was the last generation of scholars not expected to do so before receiving an academic appointment.

He specialised in the history of war early in his teaching career, and became the first lecturer in war studies at Kings College London during the 1950s. He later went on to become the first chair of war studies when the department was formally established at the college in 1964.

In the late 1960s, Sir Michael headed back to Oxford, where he lectured for 20 years on the history of war. He served as regius professor of modern history from 1980 to 1989, after which he accepted the Robert A Lovett chair of military and naval history at Yale University, from which he retired in 1993.

Apart from his academic achievements, Sir Michael is a prolific speaker and the author of a number of books and essays, most recently The Invention of Peace, published last year.

Along with Professor Peter Paret, of the Institute for Advanced Studies, Sir Michael translated from German Carl Von Clausewitz's On War, which is now considered the standard English version.

He also helped establish the International Institute for Strategic Studies, an independent centre for research and debate on the problems of conflict, and was twice appointed vice-president of The British Academy between 1978 and 1980.

Sir Michael received the Nato Atlantic Award and the Paul Nitze Award from the US Center for Naval Analyses. He was knighted in 1986.

Speaking at a conference last week, hosted by the Royal United Services Institute and the Guardian, Sir Michael lambasted the bombing of Afghanistan, comparing it to "trying to eradicate cancer cells with a blow torch".

He said President George W Bush had made a "terrible and irreversible" mistake calling the campaign a war, as it created public demand for military action.

Starter for 10

Who or what inspired you to become an academic?
I was just fortunate enough to get a job as an academic. Having read history and enjoyed it and found myself very good at it, I was jolly lucky to land a job after graduating in 1946. I had wanted to read and write history ever since I was a boy.

What is your most memorable "eureka" moment after a new discover/finding?
I don't think there was any single memorable moment. It was the whole process, where things came together and I was able to get an overview of the past. There wasn't a single "road to Damascus" experience.

If you could make one discovery/academic contribution, what would it be?
I think it has been to reintegrate the study of war into mainstream history, particularly for British historians.

If you could change one thing about academic life, what would it be?
I can suggest many things I would like to have changed about Oxford and about the way in which universities are responsible to the state and funded by the state. It was a terrible mistake to call all institutions of further and higher education "universities" because it destroyed the independence, status and prestige of great polytechnics, whose independent status had always been recognised in Germany and the US. I think there is a failure now to recognise the enormous problems which "elite" universities are having to maintain their status in the world system.

We do need more people coming into higher education, into what in the US would be state colleges, but to equate that level of education with Harvard, or Oxford is to make a major categorical mistake, very difficult to recover from.

I would go back to Anthony Crosland's so-called reforms and take it from there.

Who is the most influential academic in your field?

How does the UK compare with other countries in your field? Which is the best department in the world?
The best department, as such, for war studies is that of Kings College London. It's virtually the only one. But for general world strategic studies, the US is so well funded it inevitably does produce more good work in the field.

The actual teaching of war studies and the history of war is done as well at Kings College and Oxford as anywhere else.

What has been the most important breakthrough in your field in the past decade?
I don't think there has been a single breakthrough. It doesn't work like that in humanities. Developments are pretty slow and gradual, and we are still digesting the groundbreaking work of the 1950s and 1960s in developing the study of "total history"; history studied in real depth and width. We've by no means exasperated that.

What is the biggest research grant you have won?
I have never applied for a research grant.

What is your one tip for applying for grants?
I'm constantly sponsoring them and have been on the giving end. The really important thing is to cost the project thoroughly, in a realistic fashion. Make the objective quite clear, say what you are trying to do and do not be vague. And don't exaggerate or under-rate it.

If you were in charge of government research funds, would you allocate them differently?
It's far too large a subject to answer.

What is your worst moment while lecturing to students?
Having lectured at the University of London to student audiences ranging between 50 and 100, to giving my first lecture at Oxford when I had eight.

Do you think undergraduates have improved or declined in ability since you were a student?
I couldn't say because I retired from teaching 10 years ago. But so far as I had 20 years experience of teaching at the University of London and 20 years at Oxford, the quality at both places was outstanding. I have no idea whether they have got worse since then.

What would be your one word of advice for a new lecturer?
Be audible.


The  blog originated as a form of engaged pedagogy.  I came up with the idea last December.  The graduate student culture  within the military history program seemed more passive  than the culture of previous years, and I hoped the blog could model the sort of engagement I remembered and wanted to see again.

The norm, for well over a decade, had been for the grad students to do a good deal of intellectual and professional development on their own; also to think about the field in broad terms and to show an enthusiasm, almost an impatience, for the field to develop into something more akin to other academic fields.  My own cohort (ca. 1987-1992) had a reading group that thrived.  When we noticed that the Franco-Prussian War usually fell between the cracks of the European Warfare sequence, we organized a seminar on the conflict, created a reading list, and invited several professors as guest lecturers:  not just faculty from this department but also Sir Michael Howard, then holder on the Lovett Chair at Yale, because he'd written the standard work on the war. (Check out the profile at left, especially Howard's response when asked to name the most influential academic in his field.)

That was just the beginning.  In 1992 Thomas Arnold, a specialist in early modern Europe then writing his dissertation, decided to teach a five-week mini-seminar on the Thirty Years' War.  I'd forgotten about this until I stumbled across an old file this weekend.  But there it all was:  a detailed  proposal, a professionally-done flyer announcing each week of the seminar, its topic, the reading for that week and a list of recommended books and articles; and the readings themselves.

It was also Tom, together with Cliff Rogers and a few others, who came up with the idea of a graduate student conference in military history.  They called it Theatrum Militarum, and despite the fact that a) few knew what the hell the name meant; and b) the name should properly have been Theatrum Militari, according to my colleague Joe Lynch, a medievalist who would know, the conference thrived for several years.  It took place on an annual basis and soon drew grad students from all across the country.  I served as faculty adviser but that was just pro forma.  The students did everything--and I do mean everything--themselves.

Theatrum Militarum began to falter a bit after, say, 1996, which, come to think of it, is about the time I suggested changing the name to something less mysterious.  I believe it changed names a couple of times after that.  When last held, in November 2000, it was called History:  The Military and Society.  I have a call for papers for something called the Interdisciplinary Forum on Military Studies, to have been held in March 2002, but I don't think that one actually came off.

The demise of the conference reflected a general shift in the graduate student culture within the field.  I don't consider the students to blame for that.  We faculty just assumed that things would hum along fine without our supervision, and we failed to notice the change in dynamics--which was, I think, in part the unintended consequence of our admissions decisions between about 1998 and 2003.  Basically we in military history extended offers each year to roughly equal numbers of civilian grad students and active duty officers.  All were qualified, but typically about half the civilians accepted offers elsewhere, while nearly all the officers joined our program.  It created a situation in which the number of total officers in the program went from about 15 percent to about 35 or 40 percent.  As of last year, fully half the grad students doing coursework were officers.

There has never been anything wrong with the officers.  Almost literally without exception, they have all been intelligent, motivated, articulate, and above all organized.  But in the nature of the case, they are following a non-academic career trajectory.  The sheer abundance of them makes it more difficult to develop civilian grad students, intellectually and professionally, along the lines appropriate for the civilians' expected career trajectory.  It's not an insurmountable problem.  It may not be a problem at all.  But it has altered the culture in ways that we faculty should have noticed and taken positive steps to address.

In any event, the culture has improved markedly since last year.  The grad students now have their own on-going reading group, plans are underway to revive the student conference (by whatever moniker), and students have pitched in readily to help with the upcoming conference on the History of War in Global Perspective.

Anyway, the blog began as an effort to model intellectual curiosity about the field of military history.  I'm not sure to what extent it influences anyone else, but I know it has been helpful to me as I have tried to evaluate what I think of the field and ponder what might be done with it.  Now that I'm in the classroom again, I've begun to orient the blog toward my undergraduates as well as graduate students and anyone else who might drop in.  Probably the next step is to create a way for people to post comments of their own, as is usual in more conventional blogs.  And I should write up a general introduction that will orient undergraduate readers to the purpose of the blog, otherwise it's likely to perplex some of them.

Keeping the blog does take a certain acceptance of risk.  I'm more used to it  now, but initially I kept the blog's existence a closely-guarded secret, sharing it with only a few friends and colleagues.  Partly I wasn't sure my interest wouldn't pass, partly I wasn't sure others would find it useful, but mostly I was afraid that keeping a blog would strike others as flakey.  I still worry about that sometimes, but enough people have been supportive that I could keep the thing going at this level of personal disclosure pretty much indefinitely.  Repeatedly, however, I have experienced a twinge of knowing that in order to make the blog of real value, to myself if not to others, I will someday have to do more of what bell hooks calls "linking confessional narratives to academic discussions."

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