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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

The Unforgiving Minute — A Soldier’s Education

"Question the Answers"

Time out for a quick book report — you’ll see, there is a reason for this:
My men’s reading group meets in a couple of weeks, and we’ll be talking about Craig Mullaney’s book whose title is the title of this post. Mullaney is a graduate of West Point, an Army Ranger, as well as a Rhodes scholar who led a platoon in Afhghanistan right next to the border with Pakistan. It may say more about me than the book that it strikes me as a young man’s writing — he writes clear, engaging sentences. He uses many well chosen and apt quotations from impressively wide reading ranging from T.S. Eliot to Rumi and — as part of the book is the story of his courtship of his South Indian-American wife — Hindu texts. And yet there is a sense in which the book mainly records what happened to him: the rigors  and challenges  of training; the vast contrast between Ranger training — physical training beyond exhaustion, and the mental challenge of developing leadership skills when pushed beyond endurance — and Oxford — open ended time to read,  think, debate, drink, question and explore. At one point a major who seems to have had it in for Craig tells him that he is smart and tough, but needs to bring the two together. And, in a sense the entire book hangs on whether he has or has not done that. I call that a young man’s book because it is more an account of what happened than a reflection from a distance.
         I have taken you on this detour because I have been urging us to talk about Afghanistan, about Fort Hood — to use our training as researchers and thinkers to engage with the issues that will be defining for many teenagers. And Mullaney’s book, while long,  is exactly the kind of read that would be perfect for a thoughtful young person drawn to the military. It makes service noble, hard, tragic, silly, but important. To my eyes he resolves rather too easily  the questions about war and morality. But he does raise them. And while the book is about our life now, it is also importantly about history. In a sense Mullaney finally brings his two sides — warrior and thinker — together when he begins teaching military history at, of all places, the Naval Academy. And that brings me to the final point of this piece.
       Mullaney speaks eloquently about the responsibilty of being a teacher in a military academy. You know that your students will be risking their lives, and the lives of the soldiers they lead. Something you say to them may save a life. Something you slur or forget  or teach poorly could have disastrous consequences. He doesn’t just mean tactics and techniques — he means a habit of mind, an approach to challenge, a mode of analysis. That is especially true of history, "history isn’t about memorizing dates: its about investigation, interpretation, and imagination. I wanted them to challenge conventional wisdom and to think for themselves, to take intellectual risks, not just physical ones. Question the answers, I repeated every class. Reevaluate your conclusions when the evidence changes."

There  you have it — Mullaney defines precisely what I have been arguing in every post here. "history…is about investigation, interpretation and imagination." Yes, yes,  and yes. That is what I believe, we authors who write for young readers believe, and what we need to get teachers to recognize in our books. Yes,  yes, I said yes. (first commenter to recognize the quotation gets the prize) 


  1. GraceAnne_LadyHawk says:

    Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses, of course.

  2. yes

  3. Loree Griffin Burns says:

    “history … is about investigation, interpretation and imagination.”

    You could take this whole piece, Marc, swap the words ‘history’ and ‘science’ and it would still ring true to me. Science is not about memorizing the names of cellular structures … it’s about investigation, interpretation, and imaginatiion. Yes, yes, and yes.

    And yet … so much of what we teach our young people during their formal education in these fields (history and science) is the memorization part. Our books are a place for us to move away from that approach, of course, but it troubles me–as a writer and most especially as a parent–that we haven’t yet figured out how to move away from that approach in the classroom, at least not on a societal scale.

  4. I could not agree more — on science and on the need for a different classroom approach to both subject areas.

  5. Mary Cronk Farrell says:

    Yes, yes, and yes.

    Are you familiar with “The Element”? A book out earlier this year making some great points about out education system and how it was formed to support the industrial revolution and is no longer applicable to the modern world.
    More importantly, the book is about passion. A necessary ingredient in… investigation, interpretation and imagination.

  6. No I did not know the book, thanks for mentioning it. But I have seen that analogy between schools and assembly lines and how that is not the education our kids need. The problem is our schools are trying to do two opposite things at once — help kids who are a way behind, even in the old model, while also preparing kids for a new world in which innovation counts for more than dutiful obedience.