by Dr. Timothy Furnish
Liberal bias in higher education extends to academics’ bias against teaching military history.
There are 299 programs in America that offer the MA and/or PhD in history according to the American Historical Association. But only 37 programs allow for specialization in military topics.
This trend is symptomatic of the left dominating universities. Leftists shun military and traditional political histories for post-modern critique in the discipline.
That preference has dangerous implications for the country because it leaves Americans unequipped to understand this nation’s dealings and tensions with our adversaries.
For example, U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) recently made a controversial trip to Taiwan.
As a result, the People’s Republic of China is turning up the heat on that previously-cold regional war. Beijing, of course, claims that Taiwan is a “renegade province” that must, eventually, be re-integrated into the mainland’s orbit.
Intrinsic to Pelosi’s position is that the United States is still the major global power. Pelosi defended her trip by arguing that she was standing up for democracy.
Even though the United States has been the world’s policeman since the end of World War II, Americans remain ignorant about global geography.
Only 16% of Americans could locate Ukraine on a map. And since 31% could not even locate China, it’s a fair bet that very few Americans have any idea of Taiwan’s location.
This geographical ignorance no doubt contributes to the desire for war, which some of our leaders exhibit over Taiwan and even Ukraine.
The ignorance level is reflected by the fact that the proportion of the American adult electorate made up of military veterans is at an all-time low since 1980 at 7%. In the current 117th Congress, there are only 91 military veterans: 17%. In 1971, “72 percent of members in the House and 78 percent in the Senate” were veterans, according to PBS NewsHour.
Since most of our leaders no longer have military experience, some familiarity with the history of that topic is sorely needed.
Furthermore, while Americans find international important, they lack knowledge about international affairs, according to Council on Foreign Relations
“Today, fewer than 2 percent of male undergraduates and fewer than 1 percent of females major in history, compared with more than 6 percent and nearly 5 percent, respectively, in the late 1960s,” according to The Washington Post.
Historians themselves are partly to blame for this decline.
Because too many of them have focused on social history and “subaltern groups” – what academics call the victims of colonialism and imperialism – to the neglect of political, diplomatic, and military history.
It is true that, for centuries, history was largely written by, for, and about the upper classes of societies. Yet in the last 40 years, historians have irresponsibly overcorrected for that trend to the extreme.
Yes, it is important to know the stories and contributions of traditionally-oppressed groups – women, slaves, and minorities. But prioritizing those narratives does not mean that the study of politics, diplomacy, or war, can be ignored.
The first two of those topics are crucial in the ongoing Taiwan uproar, and the latter is relevant to the conflict between Russia in Ukraine.
Are Americans as ignorant of military history as they seem to be about geography?
Let’s hope not, since President Biden has committed America to defend Taiwan. Meanwhile, currently, there are approximately 27 global conflicts raging on this planet.
What are our young people learning about such warfare?
To get some idea, I surveyed the history courses taught at four major American universities: University of California-Berkeley, Yale University, Emory University, and Georgia State University. Those four schools represent various geographical distributions, are a balance between public and private schools, and represent disparate sizes.
The universities collectively offered approximately 660 history courses, but I only found 10 that taught the history of armed conflict. Emory had the most, with six. Georgia State offered only one: “War in Europe and America since 1500.”
Strikingly, while higher education officials constantly trumpet “diversity” and “global awareness,” courses on non-Western warfare were almost non-existent at these schools.
Despite the popularity of military history among the public at large and with students (to which I can attest, as someone who teaches the topic), historian Max Hastings scorns the field as “warnography” – a sordid, nationalist and thus racist tale of White men oppressing, killing, and conquering non-whites.
That caricature would be news to Arabs, Aztecs, Chinese, Mongols, Ottomans, Persians, and others who built empires on the bodies of their victims.
Democrats outnumber Republicans in top college history departments 33-to-1. That ideological disparity makes it easy to dismiss military historians as MAGA-hatted NASCAR fans, rather than treat their specialization with the respect it deserves.
This academic myopia is quite unfortunate.
Military history should be studied by our citizenry, at least in college. Shame on modern academics for forsaking this crucial field of scholarship.
William Francis Butler warned about this problem in his book on the British General Charles George Gordon: “[T]he nation that will insist upon drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking by cowards.”
Ironically, Gordon spent four years in China before, much later, dying in Sudan.
He was no fool. And he knew the history and the risks, military and otherwise, of the places where the British government sent him.
It’s a pity the same can’t be said about Americans like Pelosi, who seem unaware of how costly a war over Taiwan would be.
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Dr. Timothy Furnish is a writer, analyst, and author of five books, with over 13 years college teaching experience. He has taught at Georgia Perimeter College, Reinhardt University, Kennesaw State University, and Norwich University. Outside academia, he has lectured at Joint Special Operations University, Defense Institute for Security Assistance Management, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, and several other intelligence and military venues. He also worked for five years as a consultant to US Special Operations Command. Furnish obtained his doctorate in Islamic/Middle Eastern history from The Ohio State University, after serving as an Arabic interrogator in the 101st Airborne Division.
Photo “Anti-Terrorist Operation in Eastern Ukraine” by Ministry of Defense of Ukraine. CC BY-SA 2.0.