The Grand Ideology of Charles Hill: Episode 1

The cult of Charles Hill, of which I was not a member, was just beginning when I graduated from college 10 years ago.  Hill, a former foreign service officer, began teaching at Yale in the late 1990s as the campus’s “Diplomat in Residence.”  As a professor in the Directed Studies program (a Western Civ survey offered to freshmen), he soon won acolytes among the undergraduates. (One of them, Molly Worthen, converted her infatuation into an admiring biography, The Man on Whom Nothing Was Lost, in which the author’s girlish naivite stands in winsome contrast to the cold seriousness of her subject.)  By 2000, when Hill created a selective seminar entitled “Grand Strategy,” the cult of Hill had become official.

I call it, perhaps a bit too derisively, a “cult,” but the Grand Strategy course has won uncritical, almost fulsome praise.  (Though I see that one Yale student wrote an entertaining dissent in 2005.)  It has even inspired a copycat program at Duke.  On Peter Robinson’s webTV program, Uncommon Knowledge, Hill is now promoting his theories of grand strategy to a larger audience. It would have been better if he had kept them a mystery.  For, judging from Segment 1, it seems he is not imparting wisdom to his students but its opposite.

Hill gets off to an unpromising start:

Robinson:  What is “grand strategy”?  Distinguish “grand strategy” from “strategy.”

Hill:  Grand strategy is knowing where you’re coming from, where you want to go and taking everything into account.  It’s a matter in some sense of education. That’s what this book in some large way is designed to do — to address the gap in education that we’ve seen for the last couple of generations.  Because of the social sciences in some large sense — political science will cut down any problem to a small corner of it because you have to be scientific in how you answer it. You have to do it in a way that’s replicable.  So students come to a great university and they want to do big things.  They want to answer big problems. They want to run for Senate.  They want to be CEOs of businesses.  And they find themselves pushed off into a corner of a problem and told, “You can only work on this little thing here because that’s my project.”  That’s not the way education was in the Victorian era or even in America in the early part of the 20th century.  But it’s been lost, largely lost during the upheavals of the 60s when the curriculum was changed.   And things got smaller.  As our American involvement got larger, and our concerns around the world became high politics, our education was shrinking.

Even when invited by his friendly interlocutor, Hill fails to define his signature concept, “grand strategy.”  Instead he gives a colloquial definition of “strategy” — “knowing where you’re coming from, where you want to go and taking everything into account” — and launches into a critique of college education.  A certain kind of education, he says, once available to earlier generations has now been lost.  It seems, then, that the portentous modifier “grand” refers not to a different kind of strategy but rather to the sort of people who practice it, namely, people who have enjoyed a certain kind of training.  As Hill bemoans academic specialization, presumably the type of training he has in mind is that which is proper to a generalist.

Now, there is clearly something to the idea that knowledge has become so specialized that students can no longer think about problems in a general way. But Hill frames the problem of the specialization in  a way that spells trouble. Specialization has condemned us to ignorance of the very bodies of knowledge we need to solve complex problems.  Therefore, you might think, the correct way to train a generalist is to give him a useful set of shortcuts for overcoming his own ignorance. For example, one shortcut might be: Consult with an expert in the relevant areas before making a decision!  Any such shortcut would take for granted that the generalist doesn’t himself know what he’s doing.

But that is not the way that Hill seems to see it.  He appears to reject the view that, in confronting problems, “you have to be scientific.”  In other words, there exists some other way to solve complex problems that is superior to science.  Hill does not see it as problematic that a Senator or CEO must confront problems for which he utterly lacks the requisite expertise to solve.  Rather, Hill implies, the Senator or CEO needs “grand strategy.”  With training in grand strategy, a statesman can dispense with vulgar, scientific expertise altogether.

Is this what Hill is really saying — that he has access to some special mindset that enables grand strategists to make sound decisions without any actual knowledge? Hill continues:

Robinson:  That’s the argument you’re making. The sweep, the meaning, the narrative of history is gone.

Hill: That’s exactly right.  We found, when we began to, the two or three of us that put the program together, about ten years ago — we were realizing that students were voting with their feet.  They were coming to the college, they were going into political science because they thought they would learn about politics, high politics. They found that they were not and they were moving into history, because in history you can’t shut out the bigger picture.  So we then found that in history, history too was being constricted.  Or it was distorting because of another factor . . . that is, that historians know everything.  They are looking after the fact.  They have all of the documents and all of the data.  And they begin to pronounce upon what happened back in WWII or the beginning of the Cold War, when in fact the grand strategist — the President or Secretary of State or Defense in 1947 couldn’t have known all of those things. . . . So we want to teach grand strategy to recreate the reality of what a leader actually does when you have to make a decision before you can know what all of the ramifications are going to be.

So, grand strategy is indeed a remedy for ignorance. But how does grasping “the sweep, the meaning, the narrative” help to make decision under conditions of ignorance?  It would seem that having convictions about “sweep” would compound ignorance with a distorting ideology that purports to explain how all history works.  If anything, the proper training for the generalist should be to learn to resist the temptations of “narrative” and to see each one as essentially bogus.  But here is Professor Charles Hill of Yale teaching his students to embrace their inner ideologue.  Simplifying systems are the path to wisdom!

Further, Hill’s observation that statesmen may not have all the relevant facts is true but overblown.  Take the decision in invade Iraq, which was about as “grand-strategic” a decision as it gets.  After we liberate Iraq, thought many of the war’s apologists (such as Hill himself), the example of Iraq would spur democratization across the Middle East and the world, thereby curing terrorism and creating a whole new set of American allies.  Now that’s narrative sweep! The facts casting doubt on this exhilerating vision were all available to the architects of the invasion, had they bothered to look them up.  An artificially created country, with a history of violent ethnic conflict, but oil riches for whoever seizes control, was not a good candidate for democratization.  Yet Bush notoriously was unaware of even the difference between Sunnis and Shiites two months before the invasion (long after the decision to invade had been made).  Bush may not have had full knowledge of how Saddam Hussein was planning to survive the crisis of an impending invasion.  But Bush could certainly have educated himself on other known facts.  Had he done so, and spent less time contemplating the trajectory of history, he could spared his country the Iraq debacle.

We’ll see whether Hill can come up with a better defense of “grand strategy” in later segments.  So far, it sounds not a little sophomoric. I’ll be here blogging about them here as the segments are broadcast.

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5 thoughts on “The Grand Ideology of Charles Hill: Episode 1

  1. It seems that the only clear exposition of what “Grand Strategy” means is this little bit at the end of the WSJ article you linked:
    “That day, the students were hoping to convince the president-elect to adopt a Rapid Response Health Board in Iraq to respond to public health crises, and set up a Basra Water Initiative as a pilot program to handle cholera outbreaks. Each time a student started to talk, one or more of the professors interrupted. They critiqued every detail of the presentation, from the students’ PowerPoint slides (too busy) to the way they stood (one student hopped nervously while her colleagues were speaking, they noted). But the main criticism was one summed up by Walter Russell Mead, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and one of two new teachers with real-world experience brought in this semester, when describing the Grand Strategy philosophy: “It’s a nice idea, but is it a big idea?””

    Then there’s this little tidbit from the Yale Alumni article:
    “The answer, the scholars decided, was no. So in early 1999, Gaddis, Kennedy, and Hill, despite their different political leanings—center, left, and right, respectively —went on a retreat with New York Times foreign affairs writer Thomas Friedman to piece together a course, for graduate students only, that would help them develop the critical thinking skills required to question authority and wield power effectively.”

    So one of the prime movers behind this couse, supposedly dedicated to forward-thinking policy-making, is a columnist primarily known for making exorbitant sums of money off of consistently making totally wrong predictions about the outcomes of policy? A man who is the inspiration for the term “Friedman Units”?

    It seems that the main cause for celebration of the program is that it attempts to meld practical experience in policy-making with education and theory. This is absolutely a good thing. It’s also something that has been around for ages. I myself took a course while “Grand Strategy” was still a dream that pretty much revolved around exactly the same sort of mock policy meetings that seem to be at the core of “Grand Strategy,” just without the expensive big names making evaluations. It was not a new course, either.

    The emphasis on the “big picture” and “big ideas” strikes me as entirely self-defeating, and as you say, an insistence that policy details be shoehorned to fit within a particular ideological framework. Everything is to be evaluated based on how it serves some particular “big idea” without regard to whether that “big idea” itself can have unacceptable consequences.

    One final note: it seems that if the “grand strategy” behind “Grand Strategy” is effective, a primary result will be to narrow even further the pool of potential candidates for policy-making positions without regard to demonstrated competence. In other words, its primary effect would just be to add another layer of largely irrelevant credentialism to the meritocracy.

    And, because of the dramatic expense involved in the program, this would not be a minor narrowing of the pool, either.


    • To elaborate on that last point a little: the premise behind “Grand Strategy” seems to be that consistently good policy-making is impossible without first undertaking the sort of academic path that would include a “Grand Strategy” course, since other paths (according to “Grand Strategy”) fail to prepare future policy-makers for the real world of policy making. In other words, it seems to argue that without a solid academic grounding in “big picture” policy-making, one cannot possibly be qualified for even low-level policy-making positions since that “big picture” needs to govern everything, including the lowest-level policy-making decisions.

      As such, in order to be qualified to enter into a low-level policy-making position, one must first have gone to (an almost certainly elite) undergrad program, obtained entry into (a definitely elite) graduate program, then obtained one of the handful of spots in a “Grand Strategy” course. None of the prerequisites for gaining admission to a Grand Strategy course has a damned thing to do with real-world experience, and the Grand Strategy course itself can only attempt to provide simulations of real-world experience or discussions of real-world experience (which the prerequisites to entry into Grand Strategy are perfectly capable of providing as it is).

      Then -and only then – is someone qualified for even low-level policy-making. Oh – and the government employee who has spent years implementing low-level policy decisions made by others and observing the effects of those decisions first-hand? Not qualified at all.


    • @Mark Thompson, Thanks Mark — I agree entirely with your excellent comments, particularly about useless hypertrophy of credentialism. Very anecdotally, I have the sense that college students today are more obsessed even than 10 years ago with “getting into” places. Hence the rise of Teach for America, and, at Yale, the renaissance of the secret society system.

      That Thomas Friedman was a consultant for the grand strategy program is just hilarious.


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