The controversy over the Grand Strategy program is really about the proper mission of Yale College. Yale has always struggled to balance three missions: to train its students to seek truth, to wield power and to prosper. The three have never been in sync but have opposed one another in ways the program’s crisis illuminates.

The crisis highlights the danger of donors interfering with professors’ academic freedom. But it also highlights the college’s failure to clarify how a liberal education prepares you, or doesn’t, to seek truth with integrity, to wield power responsibly and to prosper in ways that strengthen society.

Grand Strategy’s founders made a great show of truth-seeking, assigning classical critiques of power in governing, diplomacy and war. But what really turned them on was a mission they thought that collegiate liberal education had forsaken: to instill the arts and disciplines of power-wielding by toughening talented undergrads to follow established power-wielders.

The program won adoring media attention after 9/11, when death-embracing fundamentalists attacked the World Trade Center and Americans’ strongest response to the jihadis’ blood-thick, religious bonding came from first responders who likewise faced death — but to rescue others, not to slaughter them. Many had bonded in father-son, white-ethnic, Catholic unions that liberals dismissed as racist, sexist, quasi-medieval: The Maltese Cross on the New York Fire Department’s insignia comes from 11th-century crusaders against Muslim Saracens who “risked their lives to save their brothers-in-arms from painful, fiery deaths.” 

A myth, most likely, but the program’s framers understood the power of myths. They hosted power-wielders and designed crisis simulations to restore what anthropologists call “rites of passage,” where youths internalize myths about their origins and obligations, rising to full membership in intergenerational communities through hard tests of their prowess and dedication ratified by authoritative elders.

An open society needs liberal education and trustworthy communities as decisively as it needs wealth-making, military machines and grand strategies. Kids flock to “Harry Potter’s” stories craving mythic narratives of courage in adversity and loyalty to trusted communities. Yale’s first grand strategists sensed this, but instead of asking why American-style wealth-making, which has been distorted by finance capital’s casino-like investment strategies and by unprecedentedly intrusive corporate marketing and surveillance, is making American communities untrustworthy, they externalized the problem. In 2003, the Iraq war seemed an all- Yale undertaking, from George W. Bush and Dick Cheney — Yale drop-out in 1961 — and Bush’s classmate, CIA Director R. James Woolsey, former Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte ’60, Iraq Provisional Coalition Administrator L. Paul Bremer III ’63, John Bolton, ’70, LAW ’74 and former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who as a Yale political scientist instructed I. Scooter Libby ’72, who eventually became Cheney’s chief of staff. David Frum ’82 was Bush’s “axis of evil” speechwriter.

When the Grand Strategy program was passed from the conservative Cold War historian John Gaddis to the progressive labor historian Beverly Gage in 2017, I wondered if it was because of the instructors’ hawkish support for the Bush administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy’s inauguration of a global war on terror. Left-of-center scholars can make unsound judgments, too, but courtiers of established power do so at much higher costs.

Knowing this very well, Yale’s Cold War President A. Whitney Griswold, campaigned for liberal education against both communism and McCarthyite anti-communist hysteria, and abolished what he came to view as the “grand strategy” program of his time, the Institute of International Studies — a “Good Shepherd” operation that funneled students into murky crusades. In so doing, he strengthened liberal education’s immune system against elitist, security-state thinking that enveloped the later Grand Strategy program until Gage took over.

If Yale can’t restore a decent balance among truth-seeking, power-wielding and wealth-making, the Grand Strategy program, which already resembled Grand Ole’ Opry, may resemble a grand larceny of liberal education. Yale students crave the courage and skills not to serve established power uncritically but to challenge its premises and reconfigure its practices, as the college’s own founders intended that it would do in their own time.

JIM SLEEPER ’69 was a lecturer in political science and a fellow of Grace Hopper College from 1999-2020.