Reflections on Reading Great Books with Colonels

May 25, 2020
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Once, in a conversation with a colleague I said casually, “All I really want to do is teach Henry V to colonels.” Shakespeare’s play has some of the most profound insights on leadership and strategy available — plus, I like asking students to do things that make them just a little uncomfortable. And just like that, I became an instructor for an elective course, “Great Books for Senior Leaders,” at the United States Army War College. I co-taught the course for two years, and this year, I taught it on my own. Some of my favorite teaching moments and most profound insights have come simply through the act of reading great books with colonels.

Reading great books, and more importantly, reading them in community, pulls us out of our comfort zones. And military officers need to read more whole books, from a variety of genres, and then talk about them. Reading epic poetry and Russian novels and ancient philosophy is hard. Confronting and understanding the mental models and worldviews of people from other times and places and cultures is challenging work. Thinking about how books that are not explicitly about war and military affairs might nevertheless have something to say about leadership, strategy, or the contemporary environment requires critical and creative engagement. Ultimately, reading broadly, and reading outside of one’s field of expertise, encourages the range, emotional intelligence, creative thinking, self-awareness, reflection, empathy, and openness to experience that are critical for senior leaders, but which are difficult to assess and develop and are, according to many, notably deficient in the military’s top ranks. Reading great books together makes the journey that much more meaningful.

Traditionally, “Great Books” refers to a set of canonical texts, considered (by cultural and literary gatekeepers — an issue for another essay) essential to the foundation of Western culture and worthy of in-depth study. Great Books lend themselves to deep reading of texts, reflection, and discovery, whether it is a first or a second (or fifth or sixteenth) reading. In our version of Great Books at the Army War College, we opt for a more expansive approach, including a more diverse range of authors and viewpoints (for reference, this year’s list is included at the end of the essay). There are a couple of guidelines for crafting the yearly syllabus: choose books from only dead authors; start with Homer’s The Iliad; include at least one Shakespearean play; run a seminar about the eighteenth-century debates over the U.S. Constitution, focused on political philosophy and the Federalist and anti-Federalist papers; read works by women and people of color; read a variety of genres — philosophy, fiction, poetry, science, history, memoir.

 

 

Over the course of the year, the ground rules are simple: We read and engage with each text on its own terms. Collectively, we set the agenda and let our questions and discussion emerge from reading the text. It is not a course in literary theory or criticism; it is not a history course; it is not a course in rhetoric or philosophy — although we touch on all of these things. Rather, it is a course in which colleagues come together to read and discuss texts and to discover new questions to ask, ideas to ponder, and problems to consider. The professors simply occupy a seat at the table as participants; we are there to facilitate discussion, not to walk the seminar through a series of predetermined lesson objectives or outcomes. As an educator, it is a pretty radical exercise in letting go. I always do some additional preparatory reading and study, and I usually sketch out a few questions or keywords on an index card. But from meeting to meeting, I have little idea where our conversations will lead. Together, we strive to put books in conversation with each other and with our contemporary environment and circumstance. It is the best kind of book club: one where everyone shows up having read the book and with a serious intent to dig in.

Sometimes there are flops. We struggled mightily through Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary. Sometimes, there are awkward moments: for example, watching Julie Taymor’s Titus with your students, having forgotten just how trippy and sexual and gory it is. Sometimes there are genuinely delightful moments, as when our seminar on Usama ibn Munqidh’s Book of Contemplation was dominated by serious discussion of lions. Sometimes (OK, this year) I wish I’d chosen to put Albert Camus, author of The Plague, on the syllabus.

There are also moments of incredible resonance and poignancy.

I have cried for three years running when I talk about this passage from The Iliad, the moment when Hector’s wife Andromache’s blissful ignorance of her husband’s death gives way to crippling, gut-wrenching knowledge. The image of her drawing a bath for her husband — “She never dreamed how far he was from bathing ” — gets to me like few other lines in literature, and we are able to talk about what it means to wait when people we love are in harm’s way. I have listened to students talk about how they have experienced both the attraction of travel to faraway places and the dislocation of coming home as we discussed Robert Byron’s Road to Oxiana and Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North. I gained a better understanding of how stoicism is reflected in the ethos of many military officers when I read Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic alongside them. Teaching the Henriad — the series of four plays (Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) that trace the ascendancy of Henry Bolingbroke and his son to the English throne — was as rewarding as I had imagined, as we discussed generalship, combat motivation, and strategy. I was especially struck by their reading of Prince Hal’s maturation into King Henry and his relationship to Sir John Falstaff, which recognized the complexity of rejecting formative, if negative, relationships.

We bring all of our education and experiences to the table, but there’s little doubt that colonels’ perspectives are different from mine: There is no getting around that we read Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s madness differently. The colonels tended to see Hamlet’s melancholic madness as calculating and rational, while they interpreted Ophelia’s lovesick madness as clear evidence of insanity or mental illness. And we all pretty clearly interpreted the genderless society in Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed based on how we move through the world as it is today. After all, the body I inhabit — civilian, female, purple-haired, fat, and young(ish) — is pretty different from most of my students. These differences usually go unspoken — but not unnoticed. Reading great books together allows all of us to lean into our diverse experiences and backgrounds as we encounter texts that push us beyond the confines of our shared expertise in national security and the military profession. By reading Great Books, we have engaged in many discussions that enrich the War College’s focus on war, policy, strategy, leadership, and history. But we’ve also tackled conversations about race, gender, colonialism, religion, ethics, moral philosophy, and politics — topics that are too often crowded out in traditional military education courses. The Great Books format allows colonels (and faculty) to explore genres and topics in a semi-structured and purposeful way. For a population that is not often receptive to new ideas and experiences, reading Great Books is a way to test new waters and push boundaries.

And happily, in a landscape dominated by matrices, Joint Professional Military Education requirements, and “learning outcome crosswalks,” there are serendipitous, relevant threads that emerge when there’s no plan. In the 2017–2018 school year, for example, we couldn’t get away from questions about fate, agency, and providence in works such as Homer’s The Iliad, and Emile Zola’s La Debacle. In 2018–2019, there was a revolutionary and political theme as we discussed Alexis de Tocqueville’s L’Ancien Régime and the Revolution and Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism. And this year, we keep coming back to questions about justice. And yes, War College standards such as Clausewitz have a way of making their way into the class discussion a few times each year.

So why the focus on dead authors, on old texts, or on a perception of “greatness” — a loaded term if ever there were one? If all of us have limited time and attention, why such an assortment? After all, just keeping up with the latest on the national security bookshelves would be task enough. The necessity of reading for professional development has been widely touted by senior military officers; the proliferation of professional reading lists shows at least some attention to the idea of intellectual development; and many words have been written about the value for strategists and military professionals of reading fiction and science fiction. But frequently, these lists are just signals; deep professional engagement and discussion is rare. And far too often, these lists dip into the same shallow pool for recommendations. Can’t we come up with anything more interesting than Once an Eagle, This Kind of War, and Ender’s Game? The same texts (the “classics” such as Sun Tzu or Thucydides) appear over and over, even while the lists also lean heavily on the new and the popular, often opting for accessible works that synthesize and popularize academic research such as Malcom Gladwell’s Blink or lessons from the corporate world such as Simon Sinek’s Start with Why. And many observers have further noted and critiqued the stunning lack of diversity among the authors represented on these lists.

And here is where we return to the place of Great Books in a War College curriculum. “It’s only a lot of reading if you do it,” the retired general officer jokes. Faculty members put their heads in their hands in dismay. Students (and their families) get mixed messages about residential professional military education being academically and professionally demanding on one hand — and an opportunity to reconnect with family, take time for oneself, and regroup from a high operations tempo on the other. Within the specialized world of professional military education, there’s lots of talk about how we define rigor; the tension between training and education; the ideal faculty mix for military education institutions; and the use and abuse of military history, wargaming, or exercises and practice in the curriculum.

But regardless of where one falls on these debates, in practice, curricula usually reflect interdisciplinary approaches, emphasize the development of professional skills, and sacrifice depth for breadth. In a tightly packed and meticulously planned schedule, and in environments where calendar white space is anathema, students in many professional military education programs are rarely asked or expected to read whole books. Articles, essays, chapters, primers, and excerpts are generally the coin of the curricular realm. Whole books are a luxury. They shouldn’t be.

USAWC Academic Year 2020 Great Books

Homer, The Iliad

Plato, The Republic

Debates about the US Constitution (Selected Federalist/Antifederalist Papers)

Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Poems, Protest, and a Dream

William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Tom Stoppard,* Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

Robert Byron, Road to Oxiana

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

Tayeb Salih, Season of Migration to the North

Toni Morrison, Sula

 

*Tom Stoppard is not dead. I made an exception.

 

 

Jacqueline E. Whitt is an associate professor of strategy at the United States Army War College and the editor-in-chief of WAR ROOM. She is the author of Bringing God to Men: American Military Chaplains and the Vietnam War and, with Kyle Longley, Grunts: The American Combat Soldier in Vietnam (2nd edition). She tweets as @notabattlechick. All views in this essay are the authors and do not represent official policy of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, or the U.S. Army War College.

Image: Wikimedia Commons