Daniel W. Drezner

Grading Professor Hagel

In the run-up to his confirmation hearings, both BuzzFeed’s Ruby Cramer and the Washington Free Beacon have stories about secretary of defense nominee Chuck Hagel’s days as a professor at Georgetown. At first glance, the spin on these stories seems to be at odds with each other. Here’s Cramer:  Those who knew him at Georgetown ...

In the run-up to his confirmation hearings, both BuzzFeed’s Ruby Cramer and the Washington Free Beacon have stories about secretary of defense nominee Chuck Hagel’s days as a professor at Georgetown. At first glance, the spin on these stories seems to be at odds with each other. Here’s Cramer: 

Those who knew him at Georgetown remember Professor Hagel, whose confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee begins early Thursday morning, as resolute in his own views on foreign policy, and dedicated to his classroom at a level unusual for most lawmakers who take on stints as visiting professors….

Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, retired from the Senate in 2008 after serving two consecutive terms. He landed the Georgetown gig in February of 2009, and started work on crafting one course for grad students in the fall, and another for undergrads in the spring. Hagel chose geopolitical relationships as his focus, and with the help of his teaching assistant, wrote a syllabus aimed at examining the 21st century as a period of transition that is "shifting geopolitical centers of gravity and is recasting geopolitical influences as the world experiences an unprecedented diffusion," as stated in the syllabus for Hagel’s first-ever course in the fall of 2009.

Shockingly, the Free Beacon interprets matters a bit differently:

As a professor at Georgetown University, secretary of defense nominee Chuck Hagel taught a foreign policy course based primarily on anti-Israel materials and far left manifestos that castigate America’s role in the world, according to a copy of Hagel’s 2012 course syllabus….

Constructed on the premise that America’s global supremacy is waning, Hagel’s seminar featured writings that criticize America’s standing in the world, advocate in favor of shuttering American military bases, and refer to Israel as guilty of war crimes.

If the poor defenseless reader were to try to  synthesize these two articles on their own, they might come away convinced that Hagel was like Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society, if Williams’ character was also a secret, anti-Semitic communist spy. 

Fortunately, as a trained professor, I’m capable of scanning Hagel’s syllabi, and the description of the syllabi, and render my own judgment.  And I confess that, after looking at them, I have a few more qualms about Hagel than I did before. 

These qualms are not due to the Free Beacon’s story, which doesn’t have an author appellation, which is just as well, since whomever wrote it has no f**king clue who makes what arguments in international relations. Among the "anti-Israel and far left manifestos" that the Free Beacon identifies is the following:

Other books featured on Hagel’s reading list, such as G. John Ikenberry’s Liberal Leviathan, argue that America’s influence is waning.

“Even if a return to multipolarity is a distant and slowly emerging future possibility, calculations about the relative decline of American power reintroduce the importance of making investments today for later decades when the United States is less preeminent,” wrote Ikenberry, a Princeton professor, in his 2012 book.

Let’s take a brief pause here to allow the folks with some actual international relations knowledge a hearty chuckle. Because anyone who’s read anything by John Ikenberry quickly learns two things: 1) he’s about as centrist as one can get; and 2) he’s quite upbeat about America’s future (as a close reading of that quote would suggest). So we can safely ignore the Free Beacon’s efforts to spin people like Ikenberry and Zbigniew Brzezinski as anti-Israel or far left.

There’s also the rather obvious point that, as a general rule, professors will assign readings they disagree with.  It’s that whole, "give students competing perspectives on thorny issues so they can have an informed debate" kind of deal. As mysterious as this might sound to the Free Beacon, let me assure them that assigning provocative readings is a pretty common pedagogical tool.

On the other hand, a quick perusal of Hagel’s syllabi reveals a far deeper concern:  Hagel is addicted to … hackery. The Friedmans make too many appearances in these syllabi, for example. He assigned Tom Friedman’s The World Is Flat, which is pretty bad. He also assigned George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years, which is far, far worse (don’t take my word for it, take Philip Tetlock’s). He also assigned liberal portions of Parag Khanna’s work, which is unfortunate.

Now I’m not above assigning the occasional hack piece in a class to let my students chew up and spit out. That’s actually a useful pedagogical exercise. Hagel, however, seems to think that the hack stuff is actually quite good — at least that’s what he told C-SPAN. For a graduate seminar at Georgetown, the chaff-to-wheat ratio is disturbingly high. 

Besides the hack addiction, is there anything else to be gleaned from Hagel’s syllabi? If there is a theme that runs through Hagel’s syllabus choices, it’s a pretty realpolitik one. Writers like George Friedman and Robert D. Kaplan don’t really care about human institutions as much as geopolitics. He also assigned some interesting work by Joseph Parent & Paul McDonald, as well as Micah Zenko & Michael Cohen, on strategic restraint and threat inflation, respectively. That’s what should terrify neoconservatives — not the bogus anti-Israel charges. 

Still, after reading his syllabi, I must acknowledge that Hagel picked up one academic trait very quickly: just like us lifelong profs, Hagel learned to assign his own book. Well played, Professor Hagel. Well played.

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