When Scholars Disagree, Is It Important?
Yes, but that was yesterday, and yesterday's gone...
Disagreement was part and parcel of the Academy at one time, but now disagreement of any kind is not to be tolerated. Why? For that, you’ll have to indulge me for a bit.
Once upon a time, I was an assistant professor of “military studies” at a school which I will call “Nameless University”—NU. I was a “virtual visitor” in the academic vernacular, guiding young minds in the study of American Military History from the comfort of my den. Not that hard, and most of the students seemed eager to learn the philosophies behind Washington’s Fabian operations, the politics of Scott’s bold invasion of Mexico, and the whys and why-nots of Grant’s persistent attacks on Vicksburg. Nameless University created the skeleton of the syllabus; I was free to add flourishes in logistics, politics, business, and leadership. I taught my students to think in historical terms, to think outside the books and delve into unconventional sources and non-military thinking, like my professors trained me to do. The students themselves learned about the events that I taught about. I taught a method, a way of thinking, not content. It’s what I was supposed to do… I thought…
After my first semester of teaching, everyone in the Military Studies Department got a memo from the school’s Academic Outreach Department—AO for short. We were to change the American Military History Before 1865 syllabus to include material on the openly gay members in uniform, forming “positive lessons from their experiences.” Further, we were to identify Muslims in the US military prior to 1865, and talk about them in a “favorable light.” Similar requirements were being imposed on other syllabi in the department, but I was teaching the pre-’65 sections so I’ll stick to them.
That’s content, not method…
For another thing, it made no sense. Being openly gay and surviving in the western military before 1865 was practically impossible. That said, one of my fellow professors had written a paper on court-martials involving homosexuals:
One thought-to-be gay soldier’s fellow soldiers murdered him, and they hanged his killers;
Another court-martial sentenced a suspected-gay soldier to five years’ imprisonment for sodomy;
Another court-martial sentenced a soldier who had been harassed because his messmates thought he was gay to death by firing squad for desertion.
How do we glean “positive lessons” from these “experiences?”
And the Muslims, they were harder to find, but not impossible. Naval officers wrote of “Mohammadan” sailors who signed on as crew members on bomb vessels purchased in the Mediterranean during the Barbary wars (1801-1815). They served honorably but refused to eat salt pork and got more hardtack and often suffered from malnutrition. We had a few names—almost certainly mis-attributed—but nothing else. There were several other Muslim sailors who’d signed onto other ships, but we lacked much more than names.
Once again, what are we supposed to say about them that would put them in a “favorable light?”
And finally, it was the content, not the method thing. What bothered me and my fellow professors while we were having this discussion was we were being told what to teach. A college syllabus directs, it shouldn’t dictate, and it certainly shouldn’t add obscure content that dosen’t add anything to the stated purpose of the class, which was to leave the learner curious about American Military History before 1865. So, we wrote an e-mail to that effect, including what little we had to fulfill the AO’s requests.
The AO e-mailed back a link to a website with an article on Thomas H. “Boston” Corbett, AKA “Lincoln’s Avenger,” the guy who killed John Wilkes Booth. Corbett was born in England, moved to New York, and worked as a milliner—hat-maker. While plying this trade, it exposed him to mercury fumes, which cause neurological difficulties, up to madness—the term “mad as a hatter” comes from that. In time, Corbett became something of a religious fanatic and castrated himself with a pair of scissors to abide by Matthew 18-19. In time he joined the Union Army, rose to the rank of sergeant, and was in on pursuing Lincoln’s killer. Thereafter, he drifted in and out of work, was institutionalized for a time but escaped, and was thought to have died in the Great Hinkley Fire on 1 September 1894. These are the facts… But the website suggested—without stating—that Corbett was gay because of his self-castration, citing no known homosexual behavior. (Someone has subsequently taken the website down). This was what the AO wanted us to teach.
But it was not a fact… nor could it ever be a verifiable fact…
They also sent a link to another website—also no longer around—describing an assistant sailing master, the officer in charge of both navigation and ship handling in pre-steam navies, who was thought to be a Muslim, offering no proof of any kind. The AO offered this “fact” as “proof” that there had to have been more Muslims in American uniforms than we knew of; we just had to look harder. And the AO added, per their charter, that they had the power to withdraw syllabi that did not adhere to the “inclusion” requirements of the school.
We had choices to make…
Academic integrity and debate are key to what the Academy is supposed to be about… but this? These were administrators, not historians, who were telling us what to teach… and it wasn’t history. There was no discussion from the AO; no debate about the merits of either our objections to including dubious content or of fundamental objection of teaching required content at all. The dean and the full professors seemed to agree: Nameless University wanted to get rid of the Military Studies Department, but they wanted a reason to get rid of it. If no one was willing to include that content in their classes, then the department would die. So, half of us submitted our resignations, including me. From some e-mails I’ve gotten since from colleagues who stayed, there were more requirements for the next semester, and the next, until the subjects became unteachable. The last I looked at Nameless University’s catalog, Military Studies was gone. Thus died academic debate at Nameless University… and my academic career… because after that, institutions were looking for DIE statements I could not sign.
What’s all this to do with “scholars disagreeing?”
The Academic Outreach Department cut off discussion completely, dictating content because they could, not because we were teaching something that was “wrong.” They had nothing to say about anything else we taught. The websites they linked to were dead-ends, offering no comments or even author names, though they did post e-mail addresses… which we never got answers from. It was impossible to argue with silence, or with diktats from administrators who were not only not qualified to discuss the history or the pedagogy with us, and saw no need to.
Now, debate among academics comes down to “because I said so.”
This two-volume compendium of information came out in 1999, and there are still copies available for a great deal less than the asking price of twenty years ago.
The physical-book-form encyclopedia is something of a dinosaur in the Google Age… though they are still being made. One advantage that these works have is that we know what they said in 1999; the sources—like websites—can’t disappear from your bookshelf.
Think about that.
Yours truly wrote several articles for it, on topics from Vannevar Bush to the German Army, from flamethrowers to the Cologne “thousand plane” air raid in May 1942. I wasn’t the only guy working on it, of course—there were 155 contributors from what the editor, David Zabecki, said was “at least” eight countries. As encyclopedias go, this one’s fairly comprehensive… and now available in Kindle, which it wasn’t before. The cover price was also $500 in ‘99; today’s price is less than $20. Like most encyclopedias, the contributors got copies, not checks, when the books were published. So if you buy one, all I’d get from it would be a warm/fuzzy that I guided you to some good information.
July 1863 Reconsidered.
Who Put The Bomp In The Bomp Bah Bomp Bah Bomp?
On 25 June:
In 1678, the University of Padua awarded Elena Cornaro Piscopia a PhD in theology; the first woman to be awarded a doctorate degree. I should note that the Vatican refused to award her the honor before Padua agreed.
In 1903, Eric Arthur Blair, AKA George Orwell, was born in Motihari, Bengal, India. If it were not for his last two books, Animal Farm and 1984, we would have known Orwell only as a columnist and writer of a few minor socialist-oriented tracts and a memoir of his time in the Spanish Civil War.
And 25 June is NATIONAL CATFISH DAY. Don’t ask me; I just report ‘em.
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