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Leaders in Higher Education

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ELIOT A. COHEN, Director, Strategic Studies Program
Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)

 

“What history teaches us is that even things we think are completely settled are not completely settled,” says Eliot A. Cohen, professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). In fact, he adds with a smile, learning history is an excellent antidote to thinking that you understand what is happening around you.

“In some ways, this period is unprecedented, but it’s also causing a lot of people to get politically engaged, to think about what is truth and what it means to be a good citizen and to value civil discourse.” –Eliot A. Cohen, Director, Strategic Studies Program, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University

Cohen says this is why the school makes sure its students learn not only a lot of history and theory, but also practical and applied skills. Students concentrating on strategic studies can take in-depth trips to the sites of international conflicts, where they can walk the battlefield and analyze and re-create historic events to better understand the issues and emotions on both sides.

Cohen, who directs the Strategic Studies Program at Johns Hopkins SAIS, initiated the program’s Staff Rides activities, which he modeled after a military educational training technique dating back to a 19th-century Prussian General Staff tradition: Commanders and troops would ride to a battlefield for a case study in decision-making. He says the key is to have students research and then role-play figures on both sides of the conflict, rather than just listen to someone lecture about what happened. Students discover that the events they are studying are fraught with complex emotions and rarely black and white.

“This is what makes the Strategic Studies Program so unique: We offer an extraordinarily rich menu of activities outside the classroom,” Cohen says.

He also encourages students in his classes to be as analytical about their own opinions as they are about historical events. “I try to get them to understand confirmation bias and to realize that we’re all susceptible to listening only to the people who agree with us.”

Drawn from his experience in both government and the military—including teaching at the Naval War College and serving as counselor to the U.S. Department of State—Cohen’s blunt and witty observations have made him a popular contributor to newspaper op-ed pages. But he says he keeps his commentary life strictly separate from his academic one. He offers his students the historical long view—and reassurance that every generation undergoes both easy and tough times.

“I grew up during the civil rights and Vietnam War turmoil of the 1960s,” he notes. “My parents experienced that period as well as the Great Depression and World War II. My grandparents lived through all of that, plus emigration to the U.S., World War I, and the influenza epidemic.” Cohen’s students’ generation, however, grew up in the 1990s, and recent developments in U.S. and global affairs have made many of them rattled and uneasy.

“In some ways, this period is unprecedented, but it’s also causing a lot of people to get politically engaged, to think about what is truth and what it means to be a good citizen, and to value civil discourse,” says Cohen.

At Johns Hopkins SAIS, he appreciates working with students who want to make a difference. “My students are great. They’re impressive not just in terms of their intellect, but also in their strength of character. Many of our graduates are serving in government positions and doing their best, and I’m just so proud of them.”

Graduate Degree Program Options:
• Master of Arts (MA)
• MA in International Affairs
• MA in International Studies
• MA in Global Risk
• MA in International Economics and Finance
• MA in Global Policy
• Master of International Public Policy
• Dual and cooperative degree programs

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