The Kids in the Gray Flannel Suits

Does Grand Strategy Live up to its Reputation?
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Photo by Jacob Geiger.

America, preview your future: a classroom door swings open into a quiet hallway, and students in black business attire file out with purpose. They hold clipboards, laptops and leather-bound notebooks. They can speak with authority, command a wide array of knowledge and, even at this precocious stage, conduct politics with art.

For the annual “Grand Strategy” crisis simulations in December, these students, faces familiar from libraries and dining halls, assume roles of power — journalists, Cabinet officials and the president of the United States. The simulations mark the end of the year-long course, before a new GS class convenes in January. The latest crop of students, in particular, arrives at a time of transition in the program’s faculty. Last year witnessed not only the departure of Assistant Program Director Minh Luong after the spring semester, but also speculations about the upcoming retirement of Paul Kennedy, one of GS’s founders. Both names are absent from the 2013 instructor list. The latest turnover introduces two younger instructors, a move to recruit professors who can take over the program once the founders all retire. But, given the number of students turned away each year, GS seems to encounter little trouble keeping its image vital. Its vision has, in fact, spread to other schools — perhaps the slow origins of a new movement in higher education. It may be time, then, to assess what this vision means.

Despite the change in faculty, the newest students of GS enter an established tradition: they begin by studying the narratives of great leaders to understand the thought processes behind battles fought and governments crafted. During the summer and fall terms, they’re charged with applying such comprehensive modes of thinking to a real-world topic. Somewhere in this time, students may experience a fleeting understanding of what “grand strategy” is. But most GS students, by the time they graduate college, have little understanding of what the class set out to teach.

Should this surprise us? At the last session of GS in 2012, one student confessed before his professors and classmates that he’d completed barely any of the reading. Nobody was too surprised, new instructor Scott Boorman LAW ’78 remembers. It’s a reality of almost any class at Yale — a reason many people believe that classroom knowledge fails to transfer to life after graduation. But GS touches upon the fundamentals of what and how we learn, and the explanation for why it falls short of its lofty goal year after year may have deeper roots.

In a 2001 Atlantic Monthly cover story entitled “The Organization Kid,” journalist David Brooks — newly added to this year’s GS faculty — describes the typical student of an elite university as having “never known anything but incredible prosperity: low unemployment and low inflation are the normal condition; crime rates are always falling; the stock market rises.” That was Yale when GS was first conceived in the late ’90s. Molly Worthen ’03 PhD ’11, who wrote the biography of GS professor Charles Hill, recalls in those years a country that was “inward-looking, with only a half-conscious knowledge of something coming down the road.”

In September 2001, five months after the article was published, this consciousness was rendered a relic of history. “9/11 was a wake-up call for people who were too young to remember the days before the Cold War,” Worthen says. Classmates joined the military. Interest in joining the CIA surged, according to a 2001 News article.

A few years earlier, Hill, Kennedy and Gaddis had begun to craft the seminar after noticing that no American civilian university taught grand strategy. What “grand strategy” is, precisely, remains elusive (a former student warns, “It’s not worth going down that rabbit hole”). Each professor’s background colors his or her interpretation, but the common denominator is this: a term, originally used in war, to describe the connection of all ascertainable means to achieve a long-term, usually large-scale, goal. Following 9/11, “Studies in Grand Strategy,” with only a modest turnout in its inaugural year of 2000, began to grow into the dignity of its name as student interest took off. “Students were extremely interested in understanding a world historical event and its challenge to the world order,” says Hill.

From the beginning, then, GS’s place on campus has been closely linked to the student psyche — but the demand ignited by the altered campus mentality created new problems. As the seminar’s profile rose, Worthen recalls, “More students began to apply because they thought it’d be this amazing pedagogical experience that’d launch them into the stratosphere” — provided that they get in. What followed is “Grand Strategy” as it has been known in recent years, the “campus juggernaut” (as deemed by a 2012 article in The Nation) that, one year, compelled the father of an applicant to dangle a “substantial donation” before the committee if they’d admit his child, according to a 2009 Herald post. Luong, the former program director, told The Herald that another student sent a box of chocolates to “make the selection process more pleasant.”

But GS’s purest educational intent wasn’t to assist those students purely seeking prestige. Ted Bromund GRD ’99, a former associate director of the program overseeing GS, remembers that many students would listen to the professors in class and depend on their “inherent brilliance” to give plausible and, if they were lucky, clever responses. And yet, “It was blatantly obvious that they weren’t doing the reading,” he says. The program, Bromund says, wasn’t crafted so students could practice this “skill they already have.” These incidents signaled the larger obstacle — that the class was being embraced as an end unto itself, a “box to check” in a rubric of accomplishments.

But if GS was intended not as an end point for ambitious students, how is its curriculum meant to be applied? When he faced the question of “What are you going to do?” his senior year, Conor Crawford ’12 found himself talking with Hill about his love for pedigrees and horses. Upon graduation last year, Crawford, a former YPU president, entered a fellowship created by a sheik in Dubai that will immerse him in the world of horse breeding. His ultimate goal is to alter the regulations surrounding horse breeding in America, and choosing to embark on a transnational training fellowship is how he interprets a core aspiration of GS: to push students to see beyond set conventions of action.

The professors intend for the applications to be open-ended, but what results is unavoidably vague — after all, how does one teach what Gaddis calls in The Cold War: a New History the ability to see “beyond complexity to simplicity”? To Hill, the difficulty of tecaching grand strategy emerged most clearly one autumn, during the Marshall policy brief presentations. This section of the syllabus acts as a practicum of sorts: students are assigned broad issues, and they must research and present solutions to these problems in a seamless narrative. According to Hill, the professors once assigned religion as a topic for a briefing team. When the students stood up to present, “It just froze them,” Hill remembers. “They couldn’t speak because, to them, religion was something you shouldn’t get into.” Religion was removed from the topics assigned.

“Human learning is complicated,” says Boorman, the new instructor. “You can learn something, but it might sink in at some unprecedented point.” The majority of “Grand Strategy” is confined to a classroom — and, as Tully McLoughlin ’10 says, learning limited to a seminar table may render historical epics into a black box. “You can study people from over 2,000 years ago, how one decision was put up to one large goal,” he says. But at the time, it’s hard to say if the leader in question even knew he or she was employing grand strategy. Some professors believe that the yearlong class isn’t enough, that most undergraduates lack the life experience needed to understand grand strategy.

One particular group of students, however, enters GS with experience that suits the war-heavy syllabus. Ryan Shaw GRD ’10, for instance, was a cavalry officer and troop commander before serving in Iraq. When the class discussed the uncertainty experienced in military operations, he could recount firsthand stories from his time in service. Chris Howell, a former Special Operations member in the Australian Army, explains that the world of the military equipped him with an awareness of tactics and operations. “But on the ground, we often don’t understand what the higher [strategic] intent is,” he says.

For students with backgrounds like Howell’s and Shaw’s, the lessons of GS seem to cohere in a clear, applicable way, suggesting that experience may indeed be the missing element. But it may also hint that there are aspects unique to a school like Yale that are fundamentally ill-suited to something like “Grand Strategy.” In its transition to an elite university, the program found itself in a particular culture — what Brooks in 2001 called “the achievement ethos and the calm acceptance of established order that prevails among elite students today.”

Only a few decades ago, a leadership program like GS would have stirred protest simply by its mission statement. But the student climate that once regarded authority with suspicion has, since that fabled age of unrest, “swung back the other way” in its attitude towards power, says Bromund. It has resulted in a generation perhaps “a little too respectful” of authority. The one formal protest GS has ever witnessed occurred in 2009, when the first Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte ’60 joined the program faculty. Fernanda Lopez ’10 organized a sit-in to protest the absence of debate about the controversy of his career: unconfirmed allegations of war crimes. During the class, the five protesters walked in holding banners decrying the “elephant in the room.” Lopez says the questions students asked her were “largely innocent, like, ‘What are you protesting?’” Many were indifferent, dismissing the allegations as things that happened too long ago to matter. A male student in the seminar approached them and demanded to know who had paid for the posters, and what organization was subsidizing or financing them. When he saw the protesters, a News article quotes lecturer Paul Solman as saying, “This is what we used to be like in college in the ’60s.”

The shift in our generation’s view of authority also became apparent to Worthen during a seminar she once led at another school. When the class discussed the radical social activism of Dorothy Day, she asked the students what causes would move them to ardent protest. “They just looked at me blankly,” Worthen recalls. The broad impression was that students still wanted to change the world — only after receiving a degree and securing a job.

The pragmatism and easy acceptance of authority of our age makes two aspects of GS’s core philosophy difficult to reconcile. One year, a student applied to intern at a government bureau overseeing national security. He was sent a list of offices within the organization and instructed to choose a few that interested him. The student, Hill says, wanted a comprehensive understanding of the threats to national security — so he requested, instead, a job in the director’s office. The professors push students to seek vantage points like this — to assess problems from “above-the-treeline.” But this approach of “Grand Strategy” can blur the relationship between making change and holding a position of power. In today’s cultural landscape, Bromund says, advancing to these high positions is increasingly a matter of being politically correct in speech and action. But when students are too polite to talk about sensitive topics — even those as ubiquitous as religion — it hinders the ability to discuss grand strategy in a genuine way.

In years past, the syllabus has featured the story of Lucretia. In the tale, a Roman woman is raped by an enemy and commits suicide, becoming a martyr. “The point was to demonstrate why national character is important,” says Katie Miller ’12.  The class, she remembers, talked about cultural pride but drifted nowhere near other relevant topics: the role of women, or the way national pride can alienate certain people.

“Many students have wondered audibly about the story of Lucretia,” says Boorman. When he mentioned this to a colleague, the colleague joked that the legend is knowledge a cultured person should have, placed on the syllabus so it might later serve as conversational filler during, say, a future ambassadors’ meeting.

The quip contained some truth. At dinners with special guests, each student gives a brief introduction of themselves and their summer accomplishments. A Q-and-A session follows. “They learn to comport themselves,” Boorman notes. Students grow conversant in an array of topics, with an emphasis on current events and strategy. He reminds me that the same basic idea is true of Yale: that, at the very least, our liberal education will enable us to hold liberate conversations on subjects familiar to an educated person.

But this ability, though a nice benefit, is not the main thrust of a Yale education. Similarly, lessons in glibness and improvising answers aren’t the true aim of a class designed to teach students how to forge large narratives. This is why, even if each student exhausted every last resource to understand grand strategy, the design of the course wouldn’t meet them halfway. The class, in trying to push its students beyond focusing on small corners of problems, ends up teaching too early the rules of being a leader, which may later hinder true grand strategic thought.

 

The morning of the simulation’s first round, a tabloid blog goes public. One headline, attached to a photo of the press secretary, declares, “Breaking: All Statements True if Repeated a Trillion Times.” The exercise is out-of-character role-playing, and the students assume their roles of authority with ease. I watch as someone in the “Cabinet Room” tapes notebook paper over the classroom’s window to ensure privacy. Another Cabinet member, who’d been getting torpedoed by the mock press, ends up at my side.

“You’re not using names in this, are you?” he says. “‘Cause I’m getting fucked.”

Every announcement bears the disclaimer: “This document has been prepared for the use in the 2012 Yale Grand Strategy crisis simulation exercise. It is meant for educational purposes only.”

Much of the ideological controversy surrounding GS hinges upon the two words “educational purpose.” Jim Sleeper ’69, a Yale political science lecturer outspoken in his views on GS, worries that GS’s philosophy conscripts the humanities to promote American power overseas, a “velvet glove on an iron fist.” Instead, he says, schools like Yale must constantly engage with the question of what purpose the liberal arts should serve.

But right now, it seems that GS’s problem is not in its core pedagogical intent. GS, I’m told over and over, is fundamentally connected to the Yale experience, and a concentration of its strengths and defects. Finding a way to overcome these shortcomings would mean overcoming something in the air Yale students breathe. Whether the solution to this lies in Thucydides or The Art of War remains to be seen.

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