- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By John Kuehn
Best Defense guest respondent
Tom asked me to write this as an "insider’s view" of someone who has taught students (and been a student) in the professional military education (PME) system of the United States since 1996. Since then, I have spent 12 years teaching.
There is much discussion these days that PME is a mess, in part because of the post-9/11 wars, and in part because of more deep seated institutional problems. Tom, Bob Scales, and others have directed the attention of the public (and some military leaders) to the system in place today. As a professor of history at the Army’s Command and General Staff College (CGSC) in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, my informed take is that PME is not as bad as some people think, especially in regards to its faculty. On the other hand, it is not as valued by policy makers, either those in uniform or civilians, as one would wish – and it is especially denigrated by those folks in the Pentagon who work for the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and the Joint Staff, or in joint lingo, the J-staff.
Let me start with the bad news first. Former Congressman Ike Skelton, the patron saint and founder of the modern PME system — as it was reformed and institutionalized in the Goldwater-Nichols Act — must be appalled at how his vision for PME is being undermined. The real problem facing us has to do with revisions to the Officer Professional Military Education Programs instruction and policy (I’m referring here to the OPMEP, CJCS 1800 series. I understand the Joint Staff has some kooky notion about changing the 4-1 student to faculty ration to 5-1 in the OPMEP. 4-1 right now works out to about 15 students to one instructor in the classroom because of all the "non-teaching or barely teaching" staff that get counted as faculty or partial faculty. This ain’t right. The move toward 5-1 must be killed — it goes in the other direction from the best graduate education practices for resident education. Our problems, no matter what the quality of the faculty, will increase substantially. Additionally, the J-staff continues prevaricate about assigning key JDAL billets to joint faculty at the PME schools, to include the active duty officers of other services — for example navy officers assigned as faculty at CGSC. Joint education will never be properly valued if a joint tour in a PME billet is not valuable enough to be coded that way.
It has been stated that, "The [PME] faculties are too often weak and superficial." The good news is that this is very far from the truth when it comes to teaching faculty (faculty whose primary job involves classroom instruction). I can speak directly to the issue of the faculty at CGSC and SAMS, which is as strong as I have seen it in my sixteen years of association with CGSC. One problem is an out of control curriculum that the faculty, oddly, have little control over their own delivery and content. It is a large faculty, so that does mean that the quality varies, but CGSC’s history department, for example, is probably the most talented military history department in the PME Diaspora (despite including me), and maybe even in the world. I know Naval War College’s faculty less well (although I lecture on occasion for their Fleet Seminar Program). Naval War College, I think we can agree, has a first rate faculty, despite the fact that the Navy seems to value PME the least. This is a fascinating paradox.
If I were king, CGSC would go back to its pre-9/11 days "legacy structure" of one term of required primarily Army-focused, in-class content for a core course and resume its lengthier two elective terms model for the last five months of instruction. Overall, for the entire PME system I would also create a tenure track for all Ph.D. faculty. For active duty faculty I would institute competitive selection with the heads of the various colleges, with the Commandant at Fort Leavenworth having the "right of refusal" for sister service faculty who were not of the best quality. Records would be screened before nominations were made. Until we value the faculty at these institutions, how can we possibly value their product? Resident course attendance would be a universally competitive process so that we avoid what I like to call "the no major left behind" syndrome. But resident attendance should never be a year off, "a sabbatical from a grateful nation," as a colleague of mine terms it. It should be rigorous and those who attend must be professional in understanding this is not a gift, but an opportunity for them to better serve their country by developing their intellect.
John T. Kuehn has taught military history at CGSC since 2003 and retired from the Navy as a commander in 2004. He earned his Ph.D. in history from Kansas State University in 2007. He graduated with distinction from Naval Postgraduate School in 1988. He won the Society of Military History Moncado Prize in 2010 and is the author of Agents of Innovation (2008), Eyewitness Pacific Theater (with D.M. Giangreco, 2008), and numerous articles and editorials.