- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Victor Glover
Best Defense guest columnist
The professional military education (PME) system may need fixing, but in the service we don’t value graduate education and that needs to be fixed first.
The military is a microcosm of society and we suffer from the same anti-intellectualism (to borrow from Richard Hofstadter) that plagues modern society. The military does not have a critical thinking problem — the whole country does. While I agree that we need to address the range of problems with critical thinking (specifically analysis and communication) I do not agree that the problem is undergraduate education and I take even greater exception to the notion that technical education is a part of the problem.
This problem does not begin in the field-grade military, college, or even high school. We’ve had a critical down-turn in junior-high/middle school compared to other developed nations. I specifically follow mathematics and science trends, however U.S. education generally trends the same. If you want to attack the worthwhile issue of accession quality, you are biting off the mother lode. The data suggest that we have to go back to around grade 5 to reach a steady-state solution. I do work at this task, not for the military’s sake, but for the country’s. However, this is not something we can directly address from inside the leaning military machine. So what then, are we studying the wrong things?
History, politics, anthropology, geography, and diplomacy are indeed pertinent disciplines for the officer of today. Breadth of education, to include scientific and technical education, is important for the officer of the future. The real problems in life don’t come in boxes labeled “physics” or “sociology;” they demand the efforts of the broadly and deeply educated and trained. I will borrow from Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge by the polymathic Edward O. Wilson. I will not try and summarize the wonderfully complex tome, but please allow a long quotation:
Every college student should be able to answer the following question: What is the relation between science and the humanities, and how is it important for human welfare? Every public intellectual and political leader should be able to answer that question as well. Already half the legislation coming before the United States Congress contains important scientific and technological components. Most of the issues that vex humanity daily — ethnic conflict, arms escalation, overpopulation, abortion, environment, endemic poverty, to cite several most persistently before us — cannot be solved without integrating knowledge from the natural sciences with that of the social sciences and humanities. Only fluency across the boundaries will provide a clear view of the world as it really is, not as seen through the lens of ideologies and religious dogmas or commanded by myopic response to immediate need.
Specifically relating to the Treaty (or Peace) of Westphalia, the impact of this series of treaties on the relations of sovereign nations is indelible and important for the public servant. Likewise are the technical and contractual details of the multibillion (tax-payer) dollar F-35 Lighting II aircraft program, their impact on the perceived success of the effort, and the larger logistical and tactical impact of a single-point strike-fighter solution on our common defense. PME is not just about history. It is all things operational and strategic to equip the field grade and above.
We in the military can address and affect this strategic and operational deficit and the larger PME system. First, we have to understand the problem by discussing the nature of the issue (as we are). Then we can manipulate our recruitment, retention, and advancement systems more effectively.
One of the reasons we do not have the critical or strategic thinking en masse is that it is not always required. When it is required, we are trying to hone it from professionals grown in an active warfighting organization, not always conducive to critical and strategic development. We also live in a “do” oriented country and are therefore in a “do” oriented military. What we have to figure out is how to do while finding time to dialogue, debate, philosophize, analyze, study, think, and sit still. Hopefully the end of this era of war will encourage us to consider this.
The core of this issue however, is not education or the availability thereof. The large animals in the room are personnel management and advancement. To inculcate critical thinking across the department will require adjustments to our evaluation and promotion systems. We in the warfighting profession do not make up a monolithic bureaucracy. There are many facets to military service, but we promote as if everyone is striving for the same goal.
We do not highlight the junior personnel content with middle management as their highest aspiration while mastering that realm. We also do not reward the disciplined specialist in the operational force as we all have to be generalists. In contrast to my earlier statement about the broadly educated and trained, we focus too much on the broadly trained and experienced and not enough on the broadly and deeply educated. Somewhere there is balance we are failing to strike.
In the Navy F/A-18 community we refer to our training as being a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. I do not believe the promotion system is wrong or improper for our mission, just that it is too rigid. Yes we have to cull the field, yet all enlisted personnel do not want to be the senior enlisted advisor to the chief, nor all officers the chief. Integrating career flexibility and educational priority into our personnel system would have a profound impact and I believe we are trying. If we change the system to value critical analysis and communication abilities, where then do we attain these?
We are fed from and posses institutions that can educate broadly and deeply, cultivating critical thinkers. In my experience, Cal Poly, the Naval Postgraduate School, and the Air Command and Staff College are among these institutions possessing great educators. Professors like Dan Walsh, Jim LoCascio, Gary Langford, Mark Rhoades, and Jonathan Zartman understand the mission, the pupil, and the material, and mush them together until they get the learning outcome they want. Put the Peace of Westphalia where it is not, in the context of the learner, and you will undoubtedly root it in the minds of your students. A facet of the solution lies in the hands, heads, and hearts of the academe. Once the services reward rigorous graduate education, we will also see the professorship, military and civilian, evolve for the better. We will also see the opportunities to attend the nations elite institutions grow and expand, also for the better. In today’s fiscally constraining environment, civilian graduate institutions may serve as a bulwark in maintaining a professional and educated officer corps.
Another facet of the solution lies with th
e individual service member. I am a carrier-based aviator and test pilot serving as a fellow in the legislative branch of government. After this stint in the staff world I hope to return to the operational flying world. I cannot rightly blame the Navy for the difficulty in training and educating me to think and communicate effectively. What are they to train me for next? At each juncture in my career I didn’t know where I would be next until I got the call to pick up and leave. However, I have always been given what was required to do my job whether landing on a carrier, evaluating weapon systems, or supporting the legislative process.
An important part of a servicemember’s critical development is his or her personal and professional duty. We are most useful when equipped to deal with a range of problems even before we are required to. I want to give my best in service, so I ought to grasp the opportunities to get better with both hands. My career has given me a context to appreciate subjects that I did not appreciate when I was a full-time student. Context has helped me grow concern for the way these subjects affect my life and service. I would love to go back and be an undergraduate again but I cannot, so I take every opportunity to learn while I can. Does our professional military education system need righting? Not as much as our understanding of the importance of education within the military.
Lieutenant Commander Victor Glover (@VicGlover ) is a graduate of Cal Poly, Officer Candidate School (with distinction), Air Command and Staff College (with distinction), Air Force Test Pilot School, and the Naval Postgraduate School. He recently completed a tour as a department head in a strike-fighter squadron and is currently a legislative fellow in the United States Senate. The views expressed are his own.