Just what does that phrase mean? What kind of intellectual background does it take to even make that statement?
Those who have raised children in the last three decades know the state of history education in our schools. We also know that our centers of higher education have more or less purged their history departments of military historians. Required history courses – where there are some – more often than not do not cover military actions in any kind of context or depth. When you fold in the fact that the Navy has an institutional bias towards technical fields of education – then it is no surprise that historical illiteracy runs rampant from E1-O10. Is this a bad thing, or just a nuisance?
From $100 dollar questions such as, “Which nation is younger, Belgium or the USA?” to $1,000 questions such as, “What is the source of the border conflicts between Bolivia, Chile, and Peru?”, we simply do not do history well. As a result, when we work with our partners we regularly embarrass ourselves from ISAF to UNITAS as we demonstrate our ignorance of not only our history – but that of the rest of the world.
Even when we narrow the scope down to naval history – historical blindness has had real, definable costs. When you look back at some of the Navy’s worst errors in the last decade from LCS, DDG-1000, and the influence of the Transformationalist Cult – they all derive from a poor understanding of the lessons of history; i.e. – Battle Cruisers and Patrol Hydrofoils proved decades ago the seduction of speed is not worth the tradeoffs; regardless of technology the MK-1 Mod-0 eyeball is the primary sensor in the littorals; every successful shipbuilding program has been the result of evolutionary instead of revolutionary change. The examples are legion when you expand the relearned basics during this war by the Army and USMC.
There are notable exceptions though. Ironically, two of the best leaders of this war, Gen. Petraeus, USA and Gen Mattis, USMC – are both men seeped in history. Especially Gen Mattis, his love of good books and fine history are well known. There is a lesson there, but let’s move on.
How do we fill the knowledge gap in our profession when it comes to having a sound history-based foundation? Does the present system work? I think the answer clearly is, no.
To gain a historical perspective, it is either pushed to you via academics – or you can pull it to you through traditional media, museums, and online.
Where do our new leaders learn of our past? Most are not getting it in their middle and high schools – college is hit or miss. Except for a lucky few, most are too busy fighting through differential equations and mind bending electrical engineering classes to reflect and ponder. Once they hit the Fleet – too busy getting qualified and leading Sailors and Marines to wander down to the book store or library.
Sure, some will – but most won’t. Where will they find their history when they have a few minutes to chase down something that sparks their interest? Where most of their generation gets their information; online.
In the last few years, some great things have come online in the realm of naval history online. The Navy History and Heritage Command has always had a great site – USNI is expanding its offerings as well to include the drive to put the entire Proceedings and Naval History magazine archive online, and our sister blog, Naval History. Museum offerings are starting to come online more and more. It is easier to find and order good books now, and great books continue to come out that tell the story right; Toll’s Six Frigates is one example. But are we fully utilizing technology to get history in the heads of more people?
What role does new media have in history? At first blush, one would think that established historians would welcome the expanded discussion – but in line with the reaction we have seen in other areas – the reaction has been, well, reactionary.
A funny thing happened – the Empire of the Dead Tree is fighting back. Many professional historians don’t seem to like what new media is doing WRT history. OK, let’s look at that.
With a mixture of disgust and fainting spells, over the years I have been on the receiving end of various forms of, “Who are you to say this? Why, this isn’t even peer reviewed!” Fair, I guess. I am not alone – this happens to others in new media – and even old media – who opine about history and its lessons. It seems for many that new media is just a step too far. If one finger is pointing at new media, then lets look at where the other three are pointing.
Who is a “historian?” What is their mission? Are they succeeding or failing? Some of the worst damage to the field of history education (see all the fetid mass of post-modernism for examples) has been done by those with a PhD – though of course there are wonderful history PhDs out there. Those three letters do not make the holder a gatekeeper to what is or is not a proper way to distribute the lessons of history. History belongs to all who wish to find it – and the place to find it for tomorrow’s leaders is online.
You really cannot replace the tremendous depth and value of receiving an academic background in history, and books, magazines, and museums provide a more rounded picture than online …. but in the 21st Century they cannot do it all. When most never get a chance for one-on-one instruction – much less dialogue – on history, then to rely on traditional methods and gatekeepers alone is folly.
The past isn’t to be forgotten or tightly controlled within defined walls and limitations, no – it is a treasured resource that should be open to all who can reach her and as a bonus can never be depleted. You can dip in to it over, and over, and over, and over. Each month, more and more primary sources become available online that you can access. No gatekeepers with agendas or egos to tell you what is or is not worth your time. Lessons are there to be found written in blood, heros to be honored once forgotten – and more importantly – those new leaders coming online need to see, read, and hear these things. Some things may be old news to some – but are as new as a sunrise to others joining the profession of arms.
Write a book, publish an article – put a post up on a blog. Get the conversation going. Expand the network nodes. Each part should reinforce the other – but don’t look backwards and hide behind the walls of academia.
History is not something to be kept up on a shelf; it isn’t something that belongs to only a select few; it isn’t something that should be tightly held like some Masonic esoterica.
No, when history is stilted, and dusty – left as a footnote in some peer-reviewed publication – it is nothing but a self-licking ice cream cone.
The history profession has failed and/or been locked out of doing its job in the classroom in all but a very few places. I would offer to those who think that the study of history is too important to leave to the amateurs, too dignified to be put on a, ahem, “blog,” that they should follow the diktat of a well worn phrase,
“Lead, follow, or get the h311 out of the way.”