Mark Twain’s oft-repeated saw, “don’t let schooling interfere with your education” is more meaningful than ever for those concerned with the direction of American foreign policy. Despite reaching the summit of global power almost exactly twenty years ago, American foreign policy has since been at best underwhelming and at worst damaging to America’s long term strength and prosperity.
Dr. Walter Russell Mead commented in his blog on The American Interest website, of which he is editor-at-large, that the greatest problems in American foreign policy do not flow from an absence of policy proposals but rather from not adopting and sticking to good policies.
“This reflects a weaknesses in the way we train and prepare people for this kind of work…partly as the result of academic pressures for ever narrower specialization and ever more emphasis on theoretical constructs, the universities have become less and less relevant to the policy process,” wrote Mead. “As a society, we seem to be good at producing technicians and bad at cultivating and nurturing people with vision.”
He is not alone in his diagnosis. In his lecture to the 2009 plebe class at West Point, William Deresiewicz commented, “We have a crisis of leadership in America…what we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of expertise.
Deresiewicz continued, “What we don’t have are leaders. What we don’t have, in other words, are thinkers. People who can think for themselves. People who can formulate a new direction: for the country, for a corporation or a college, for the Army…in other words, [people] with vision.”
In his book Grand Strategies: Literature, Statecraft and World Order Hoover fellow and Yale professor Charles Hill argues that a statesman’s vision, his or her fundamental education, lies in the study of literature. Statecraft, the discipline of statesmen, is an art, not a science. Understanding “this is all the more necessary in our time because of the hegemony of the social sciences, particularly political science, which by self-definition must confine itself to a narrow band of problems capable of scientifically replicable solutions—leaving the biggest questions beyond its reach.”
The study of literature, however, is an “unbounded” discipline. Literature can capture the foci of political science, economics and history, but also, and more importantly, it can “grasp the ungraspable”: human nature, emotion and morals. Literature, more so than any social science, brings the student “closest to the reality of ‘how the world really works.’”
Dr. Hill’s book traces a classical, canonical literary tradition that narrates the development of political thought and statecraft. The ultimate product is a vibrant and exceptional literary curriculum that is essential for recapturing the “vision” that has eluded our most recent statesmen.
America reached its 1991 pinnacle thanks to the efforts of visionary statesmen like Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, George Kennan and Paul Nitze—all of whom were deeply trained in the literary studies Dr. Hill surveys in his book. Yet no discernible equivalent to these greats has taken the mantle in the post-Cold War era. No such statesman emerged from the Bush (Sr. or Jr.), Clinton, or, so far, the Obama administrations. So, where have all the great statesmen gone?
This is not to say that all political science and international relations majors should switch to English. To do that would be missing the point and in fact endangering their educations. English departments too have fallen under the control of what Joseph Epstein tersely refers to as “barbarian” post-modern technocrats.
William Chace, English professor and president of Emory University, has also commented on the decline of the American English department. “What departments have done is dismember the curriculum, drift away from the notion that historical chronology is important, and substitute for the books themselves a scattered array of secondary considerations (identity studies, abstruse theory, sexuality, film and popular culture).”
History, too, has fallen off the wayside in American schools particularly in public education. Despite the attention on American school children performing poorly in math and sciences, according to the federal government’s National Assessment of Educational Progress, students perform the worst in history.
These trends are troubling. What lies at stake is enormous—the health of this country’s democracy and the ability of future leaders to not only adopt good policies, but also have a comprehensive vision that can guide her to long-term prosperity. We need to rethink and revamp how universities, especially top schools like Stanford, train and equip students to be the next visionary leaders instead of run-of-the-mill narrow-minded bureaucrats.
Yale, Duke and Princeton have already taken action by establishing programs in “Grand Strategy Studies.” The curriculum is multi-disciplinary; it rejects technocracy and embraces what military strategist Carl von Clausewitz called coup d’oeil: an integration of experience, observation, and imagination.
That is Mark Twain’s “education.” Stanford currently does not offer such a program. Ultimately, it is not just to the detriment of Stanford’s prestige, but also to its students and America’s future as a leader in global affairs. Continued complacency on this front will only sustain the mediocrity we have witnessed over the past twenty years—or breed something worse.
Joshua Alvarez is a senior International Relations major and president of the Alexander Hamilton Society. He is currently working on a thesis “Turkey’s Grand Strategy” for the CISAC undergraduate honors program. Please contact him at email@example.com with questions or comments.