The Grand Ideology of Charles Hill: Episode 1
The cult of Charles Hill, of which I was not a member, was just beginning when I graduated from college 10 years ago. Hill, a former foreign service officer, began teaching at Yale in the late 1990s as the campus’s “Diplomat in Residence.” As a professor in the Directed Studies program (a Western Civ survey offered to freshmen), he soon won acolytes among the undergraduates. (One of them, Molly Worthen, converted her infatuation into an admiring biography, The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost, in which the author’s girlish naivite stands in winsome contrast to the cold seriousness of her subject.) By 2000, when Hill created a selective seminar entitled “Grand Strategy,” the cult of Hill had become official.
I call it, perhaps a bit too derisively, a “cult,” but the Grand Strategy course has won uncritical, almost fulsome praise. (Though I see that one Yale student wrote an entertaining dissent in 2005.) It has even inspired a copycat program at Duke. On Peter Robinson’s webTV program, Uncommon Knowledge, Hill is now promoting his theories of grand strategy to a larger audience. It would have been better if he had kept them a mystery. For, judging from Segment 1, it seems he is not imparting wisdom to his students but its opposite.
Hill gets off to an unpromising start:
Robinson: What is “grand strategy”? Distinguish “grand strategy” from “strategy.”
Hill: Grand strategy is knowing where you’re coming from, where you want to go and taking everything into account. It’s a matter in some sense of education. That’s what this book in some large way is designed to do — to address the gap in education that we’ve seen for the last couple of generations. Because of the social sciences in some large sense — political science will cut down any problem to a small corner of it because you have to be scientific in how you answer it. You have to do it in a way that’s replicable. So students come to a great university and they want to do big things. They want to answer big problems. They want to run for Senate. They want to be CEOs of businesses. And they find themselves pushed off into a corner of a problem and told, “You can only work on this little thing here because that’s my project.” That’s not the way education was in the Victorian era or even in America in the early part of the 20th century. But it’s been lost, largely lost during the upheavals of the 60s when the curriculum was changed. And things got smaller. As our American involvement got larger, and our concerns around the world became high politics, our education was shrinking.
Even when invited by his friendly interlocutor, Hill fails to define his signature concept, “grand strategy.” Instead he gives a colloquial definition of “strategy” — “knowing where you’re coming from, where you want to go and taking everything into account” — and launches into a critique of college education. A certain kind of education, he says, once available to earlier generations has now been lost. It seems, then, that the portentous modifier “grand” refers not to a different kind of strategy but rather to the sort of people who practice it, namely, people who have enjoyed a certain kind of training. As Hill bemoans academic specialization, presumably the type of training he has in mind is that which is proper to a generalist.
Now, there is clearly something to the idea that knowledge has become so specialized that students can no longer think about problems in a general way. But Hill frames the problem of the specialization in a way that spells trouble. Specialization has condemned us to ignorance of the very bodies of knowledge we need to solve complex problems. Therefore, you might think, the correct way to train a generalist is to give him a useful set of shortcuts for overcoming his own ignorance. For example, one shortcut might be: Consult with an expert in the relevant areas before making a decision! Any such shortcut would take for granted that the generalist doesn’t himself know what he’s doing.
But that is not the way that Hill seems to see it. He appears to reject the view that, in confronting problems, “you have to be scientific.” In other words, there exists some other way to solve complex problems that is superior to science. Hill does not see it as problematic that a Senator or CEO must confront problems for which he utterly lacks the requisite expertise to solve. Rather, Hill implies, the Senator or CEO needs “grand strategy.” With training in grand strategy, a statesman can dispense with vulgar, scientific expertise altogether.
Is this what Hill is really saying — that he has access to some special mindset that enables grand strategists to make sound decisions without any actual knowledge? Hill continues:
Robinson: That’s the argument you’re making. The sweep, the meaning, the narrative of history is gone.
Hill: That’s exactly right. We found, when we began to, the two or three of us that put the program together, about ten years ago — we were realizing that students were voting with their feet. They were coming to the college, they were going into political science because they thought they would learn about politics, high politics. They found that they were not and they were moving into history, because in history you can’t shut out the bigger picture. So we then found that in history, history too was being constricted. Or it was distorting because of another factor . . . that is, that historians know everything. They are looking after the fact. They have all of the documents and all of the data. And they begin to pronounce upon what happened back in WWII or the beginning of the Cold War, when in fact the grand strategist — the President or Secretary of State or Defense in 1947 couldn’t have known all of those things. . . . So we want to teach grand strategy to recreate the reality of what a leader actually does when you have to make a decision before you can know what all of the ramifications are going to be.
So, grand strategy is indeed a remedy for ignorance. But how does grasping “the sweep, the meaning, the narrative” help to make decision under conditions of ignorance? It would seem that having convictions about “sweep” would compound ignorance with a distorting ideology that purports to explain how all history works. If anything, the proper training for the generalist should be to learn to resist the temptations of “narrative” and to see each one as essentially bogus. But here is Professor Charles Hill of Yale teaching his students to embrace their inner ideologue. Simplifying systems are the path to wisdom!
Further, Hill’s observation that statesmen may not have all the relevant facts is true but overblown. Take the decision in invade Iraq, which was about as “grand-strategic” a decision as it gets. After we liberate Iraq, thought many of the war’s apologists (such as Hill himself), the example of Iraq would spur democratization across the Middle East and the world, thereby curing terrorism and creating a whole new set of American allies. Now that’s narrative sweep! The facts casting doubt on this exhilerating vision were all available to the architects of the invasion, had they bothered to look them up. An artificially created country, with a history of violent ethnic conflict, but oil riches for whoever seizes control, was not a good candidate for democratization. Yet Bush notoriously was unaware of even the difference between Sunnis and Shiites two months before the invasion (long after the decision to invade had been made). Bush may not have had full knowledge of how Saddam Hussein was planning to survive the crisis of an impending invasion. But Bush could certainly have educated himself on other known facts. Had he done so, and spent less time contemplating the trajectory of history, he could spared his country the Iraq debacle.
We’ll see whether Hill can come up with a better defense of “grand strategy” in later segments. So far, it sounds not a little sophomoric. I’ll be here blogging about them here as the segments are broadcast.