The Forum | General Education

Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize Promotes Military History

March 26, 2015

Founded last year to support the study of military history, the second annual Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History was, on Monday, awarded to Alexander Watson for his book Ring of Steel: Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I. In the widely-popular book, Watson takes a fresh approach to the study of World War I, studying its beginning form the perspective of the Central Powers, Austria and Germany. Chairman of the judging committee, Dr. Andrew Roberts, praised the work for forcing “us to re-examine the whole war from a startling angle.”

Military history—as the popularity of Watson’s book shows—remains a topic of great interest for American readers, many of whom recognize that knowledge of such history provides both a basis for evaluating future conflicts, as well as a deeper understanding of our national character. Alas, the same is not true of our colleges and universities. Political, diplomatic, and military history used to be central to the work of history undergraduates, but today they are barely touched.

According to a recent study, only half of the top 20 history departments employ even a single historian who works on traditional military history. At the others—including Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and the University of Michigan—there are none at all.

There is an orthodoxy on campus which holds some topics as inappropriate for undergraduate study. It finds its basis not in well-reasoned consideration of what will help a student develop as citizen and scholar, but rather the ideological whims of the faculty. The same study mentioned above relates this sad example at Ohio University: “After the university’s military historian recently retired, [OU professor Alonzo] Hamby told the New York Times, some members of the department argued that since ‘military history is evil,’ the department needed to advertise for a different type of historian.” The department may have felt they were doing the right thing, but they have instead imposed their own idiosyncrasies on the thousands of students who will attend OU in years to come.

It’s time to restore military history to its rightful place in undergraduate education. Projects like the Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize are doing good work to return to this field the respect it deserves, and to highlight the continued relevance of military history for modern life.


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