“The study of history lies at the foundation of all sound military conclusions and practice.”
The History Department teaches three core courses – American Naval History (HH104) and a two-semester world history sequence, The West/MIddle East/Asia in the Premodern World (HH15x) and The West in the Modern World (HH216) – the minimum required for the leadership proficiency expected of junior officers in the naval service. The importance of naval history and world history in the general education of our students is self-evident. Midshipmen need to know the history of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. They need to know the deeper history and culture of the important regions of the world today (e.g., the Greco/Roman/Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist/Confucian traditions). They need to know about the emergence of modern democracy and the continuing appeal of authoritarian forms of government, the creation of an industrialized global economy, the rise, persistence, and fallacies of modern racism, and the causes and conduct of war.
The History Core courses necessarily differ in historical content, but they all devote attention to the importance of four (4) broad themes in history essential to the leadership preparation of midshipmen:
- War and Society
- Human Differences
- Geography and Environment
The History Core introduces and develops historical competency, specifically by focusing on several intellectual orientations/skills essential to the effectiveness of officers that are not emphasized as prominently in the other USNA core courses. Historians and effective military leaders are realists; they proceed from evidence about how the world actually works and discipline themselves to explain/decide based on the most important relevant factual evidence. Therefore, the History Core develops the following orientations/skills:
- Human Agency: Forces and factors result from human actions.
- Primacy of Evidence: Evidence shows how the world actually works.
- Causation, Context, Contingency: Explain why from all relevant evidence.
- Comfort with Complexity and Ambiguity: Evidence is always imperfect.
- Compelling Argument: Complexity and clarity are not mutually exclusive.
- Counter-Argument: The best argument must be better than the next-best.
- Humble Conclusions: Expect that someone will improve your argument.
Why We Teach History
We teach midshipmen history because there is no better preparation for leadership than the study of history. We cannot understand the world today without knowing how it got that way — which is to say through history, the discipline that seeks to explain why everything came to be as it is. In the real world, everything – politics, economics, religion – is connected to everything else, and so is the process by which people decide and act, by which history unfolds. People make the future and with it, history. History is thus both a general and an integrating discipline–indeed, a capstone discipline. Because history teaches us how the world came to be as it is, it also teaches us what we must know in order to shape it to desired ends in the present and the future. An effective leader masters the past in order to more effectively shape the future. Thus, effective leadership is in significant measure applied history.
People who do not know the past do not know the world well. They are lost in the present. Lost leaders are a danger to the people they lead. Lost citizens are a danger to themselves and to their fellow citizens. The mission of the History Department is to ensure that each of our graduates knows what she or he needs to know from history to be an effective leader in the world — first as junior officers, later as mid-career and senior officers, and, ultimately, as citizen-leaders competently meeting the challenging responsibilities we teach them to embrace as their life’s work.
History also equips students with the skills and intellectual orientations necessary, not just for a strong understanding of the human past, but for effective present-day leadership. It teaches careful respect for evidence, critical thinking and analysis skills, and the ability to form sound conclusions in contexts characterized by complexity, ambiguity, and incomplete information. That is, it cultivates the development of sound judgment, clearly expressed. This requires not only reason but also imagination tempered by knowledge and wisdom. A wise leader is aware of other perspectives and tries to understand them by imaginatively occupying them. S/he is aware that things could well be otherwise and prepares for contingencies by imagining other possibilities. Lastly, history teaches one to be skeptical of first reports, reductive explanations, and single-perspective narratives. It pushes us to develop the habit of asking questions, pursuing answers to questions, and analyzing experience from various points of view. In other words, history places a special focus on what leaders must do in the real world if they are to be effective.