SMH President’s Remarks on “The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy”

Prof. Gregory Urwin of Temple University, who will shortly conclude his term as president of the Society of Military History, has a valedictory column in the current SMH newsletter.  [Society for Military History Headquarters Gazette, vol. 27, no. 4 (Winter 2015):3-4].  In it, he takes time to comment at length on the recent SMH White Paper, whose preparation he regarded as one of two principal tasks he wanted to accomplish during his presidency.  Here’s how he portrays its genesis, rationale, and purpose:

On the eve of my accession as your president, I informed the SMH Council of my intention to commission a white paper to promote the teaching of military history in American colleges and universities. I had grown tired of seeing those occasional whiny newspaper and magazine articles filled with quotations from military historians claiming that our field does not command enough respect from academe. Whether that charge is true or not, such a negative and confrontational approach – especially since it is often driven by conservative special interest groups – is counterproductive. I thought it would be far better to address a paper to university and college administrators, non-military historians, and the general public that summarized how much military history had matured during the past half century, why it is vital to an informed citizenry to understand the most fearsome (and most expensive) tool wielded by their government, and how military history courses – due to their popularity – could boost  any history department’s enrollment figures and serve as gateways to the recruitment of more history majors and minors.

I turned to then Vice President Robert M. Citino to ramrod this effort. Rob recruited Tami Davis Biddle of the U.S. Army War College to join him, and the two of them went to work with a will. When Rob resigned as vice president just before our 2014 Annual Meeting,  Tami soldiered on, completing a compellingly argued and beautifully written essay. As I draft this column, Tami and Rob’s masterpiece, The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy, is at the printer’s and should be released before you read my words.

The SMH plans to distribute this white paper to the news media, educational leaders, and history departments across the United States. We hope that Tami and Rob’s vision will cause academe to take a new look at military history. If all goes well, the ensuing discussion will result in the creation of some additional teaching positions in our sub-field, and further elevate the Society for Military History’s position in the humanities community.

Urwin is wise to specify the main academic target audience as university administrators rather than faculty.  I recently sent the White Paper to ten faculty members at various institutions, members whose views of our field I knew to range from polite skepticism to something approaching outright disdain.  Most took time to reply; I was surprised and pleased to find that some of the faculty I expected to be most dismissive instead sent thoughtful, insightful responses–and that all of them acceded to my request to quote them without attribution.  I’ll summarize their views in a follow-up post.  For now, I’ll just say that they did not exactly perceive the White Paper as devoid of the defensive tone Urwin sought to transcend, nor did it put much of a dent in their existing perception of the field.  University administrators, on the other hand, may well be intrigued by the White Paper’s assertion that “military history courses – due to their popularity – could boost  any history department’s enrollment figures and serve as gateways to the recruitment of more history majors and minors.”  Faculty can airily dismiss such workaday possibilities as a kind of academic whoring.  Administrators cannot.

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One thought on “SMH President’s Remarks on “The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy”

  1. Yep. Note the growing number of military history courses offered by online programs, particularly by for-profit colleges. There remains substantial unmet demand for college-level military history courses.

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