From the Editor

Strategies of the Grand Strategy course

A course that tries to “equip young people to deal with the unforeseen.”

There is a book waiting to be written about unforgettable college courses, and it could be written entirely about courses at Yale. Vincent Scully on art history. Marie Borroff on modern poetry. Maynard Mack on Shakespeare; Harold Bloom on Shakespeare. Shelly Kagan on death. There are many more.

The book would have to include the “it” course of today, Grand Strategy. This course is so famously selective (infamously, among undergrads), and it draws on so many titans of politics and industry, that it has acquired a mystique on campus. It also recently acquired a book of its own: Teaching Common Sense, by journalist Linda Kulman. It’s an authorized biography, underwritten by the funders of the course—former treasury secretary Nicholas Brady ’52 and financier Charles Johnson ’54—and therefore has the rare and entertaining advantage of including captivating classroom scenes.

Grand Strategy was founded in 2000 by, and is still taught by, history professors John Lewis Gaddis and Paul Kennedy and former Foreign Service officer Charles Hill. Kulman introduces it simply as a course “to train future decision makers.” In what? There are nuances to the answer. Henry Kissinger, a regular GS speaker, writes in a brief foreword that the course seeks to convey “both an intellectual understanding of and some operational experience in strategy and policy in a comprehensive structure for international relations.” Says Gaddis, “We’re trying to equip young people to deal with the unforeseen.” For Brady, GS is an antidote to the fact that “colleges are turning out hothouse flowers”: “these overstudied, underexposed students need a course in common sense.” 

GS begins in the spring semester with a study of “chroniclers and practitioners” of grand strategy, from Thucydides and Sun Tzu to Mao, Isaiah Berlin, and Ronald Reagan. Then comes a summer “odyssey,” an individual trek that each student designs to research the topic (or try the profession) of his or her dreams.

Next is the fall semester, which begins with a survey of current geopolitics and culminates in a series of in-depth student presentations on critical world issues—presentations in which students play government policy staffers and teachers and visitors play government leaders. “Critique” is too mild a term for the questions the students field; “shark tank” might be, too. The final phase is a crisis simulation, in which randomly chosen disasters descend on a mock president and his or her mock staff: an American is taken into Chinese custody, a US missile brings down an Iranian plane, an oil spill takes place in North Dakota, and the new press secretary uses an expletive in a White House press conference.

When the crises are over and dealt with, the exhausted students receive their evaluations. They also receive GS pins. The idea is to build the GS alumni community, Hill explains: “You wear the pin, and when you grow old you will still be able to recognize each other.”

The GS trio has decided—strategically—to ensure that the course continues after they retire, by building the succession infrastructure early. In January, public health professor Elizabeth Bradley ’96PhD took over from Gaddis as director of the program. (He continues as a teacher.) Since 2010, Bradley has been teaching a course on public health policy that is modeled directly on GS. Her own definition of GS: “the study of the achievement of large ends with limited means.” In our increasingly interconnected world, Bradley believes, attaining that elusive skill is more important than ever before.

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