In a recent interview on CSPAN, the distinguished historian John Lewis Gaddis discussed his new book, On Grand Strategy. The book is based on Studies in Grand Strategy, a year-long course at Yale University that Professor Gaddis developed with his colleagues Paul Kennedy and Charles Hill. As the fall and spring syllabi demonstrate, it’s an extremely innovative course, with a great reading list and eclectic guest instructors including Paul Solman of the PBS Newshour and David Brooks of the New York Times.
During the interview (which was hosted by CSPAN legend Brian Lamb), Gaddis discussed the course curriculum and structure as well as the ideas that inform the course as a whole. The interview is an hour long, but Gaddis is so learned and interesting, the hour flies by.
Midway through the interview, just after Gaddis answered a question about Winston Churchill’s reaction to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Lamb asked out of the blue a quite profound question: “How do you learn?”
Gaddis at first seemed surprised by the question, unsure who Lamb meant by “you.” But once he grasped what Lamb was asking, he gave a great answer. Here is what Gaddis said:
“I like to think it is both by reading and teaching and then reading more and teaching more . . . because I don’t think you really know what you’ve read well until you try to teach it to a group of young people . . . [A]s you teach to a group of young people, you realize there are things you still don’t know enough about how to teach credibly, to teach fully, and so on. That drives you back to additional reading.”
That seems exactly right to me. It certainly has been my experience.
Professor Gaddis then went on to explain how the act of writing is essential to his own learning process.
“[T]he act of writing something down like this book is a working out of ideas in my own [mind] which is another approach to thinking. I really didn’t know what I thought about some of these issues that are discussed in this book until I wrote the book and now I can go back and see what I think. And so I think it’s a creative interconnection of all three of these things – reading teaching and writing ultimately.”
I could not agree more.
The whole interview is quite interesting, and it covers everything from Steven Spielberg’s film Lincoln to Otto von Bismarck’s use of shock and awe to Isaiah Berlin’s essay on the Hedgehog and the Fox. You can find it here at the invaluable CSPAN website.