- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Nicholas Murray
Best Defense department of remedial PME
“It is just not learning with your partners and your peers and your partners and peers from other nations. It is also about spending a little time with your family. I think that is incredibly important.”– General Raymond Odierno speaking to the graduating class of 2013 at the Army War College, Carlisle, PA
All of the talk of the effect of the furlough on the military has missed one important factor. What is going to happen to our military schools? Well, it’s not looking good: at least, not from the perspective of the Army’s Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. A curriculum that has already been roundly criticized as overwhelmingly bloated and far too focused on teaching information the officers should already know is about to get compressed into less time. It is often claimed that the college is modeled on a good quality graduate school or should resemble one. Indeed, Gen. Robert Cone (commanding general of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command) wrote in a recent article in Military Review: “There is no reason not to demand the equivalent of Harvard on the Missouri at Leavenworth….” That’s great, and I agree. However, there is a huge roadblock in the way: the schedule.
If CGSC was Harvard the students (officers) would expect to spend nine or so hours a week in class (about 270 hours in class time for a school year) and the rest of the time reading and researching. At CGSC the officers currently spend around 900 hours in the classroom. Yes, nine-hundred hours! That total does not include the large number of guest speakers who are compulsory viewing (many of whom are a waste of time and money according to the students, but that is another story). Typically, this means another 60-70 hours on top of the 900 (let’s say 950). Add to that number time for assignments, reading, researching, and thinking. A typical rule of thumb used in grad school is three hours of study/work time for every classroom hour. This brings us to more than 3,800 hours for the year. That is more than 12 hours per day for every single day the officers are at CGSC, including weekends and holidays. Do we really think they are going to do that? Of course we already know they don’t, and can’t. If we only include the number of actual work days it gets even more ridiculous. There will be roughly 180 work days next school year. Do we really expect our officers to work more than 21 hours a day? I hope not.
To show the reader what this means, at 12:30 PM on October 21, 2013, students at CGSC will already have completed 270 hours of contact time. At that point, they will still have more than seven months to go before the school year ends!
What could be different? CGSC could have taken the opportunity presented by the furloughs to drastically cut back on the number of hours. This would have enabled the college more closely to match up with the demands of much of the criticism of PME. Of course, one might ask why is this particular issue important? All credible research shows that trying to stuff too much information into the heads of students has the opposite effect to the desired outcome. Typically, students actually end up learning less than if they had been introduced to a smaller amount of material in the first place. This is not good for U.S. servicemembers who are required to think. Furthermore, it is not good for their safety, or U.S. national security, if they don’t do it well. And they are less likely to do it well if they are not taught properly.
Is this even necessary? According to Gen. Robert Cone, it is not. He sent a letter regarding the furloughs to Army education staff and faculty (Memorandum for TRADOC Civilian Workforce, dated June 28, 2013) which stated that “leaders have been given authorities to minimize adverse mission effects and to limit the harm to morale and productivity.” If leaders have been given the authority to fix things, why have they not done so? It must be said that the curriculum was reviewed. However, the number of hours actually increased with the inclusion of in-class written exams (nothing wrong with that, one might think, except for the fact that not enough was cut to provide the additional time required). Again, why is this important? The ridiculously long hours mean enormous and unnecessary stress will be placed on servicemen and women, large numbers of whom have spent a great deal of time (over the last 10 years) deployed overseas serving our nation. It is also a lot more stressful for the faculty who have virtually no time at all to properly prepare for classes. This affects the mission. Less well prepared instructors, and stressed faculty and students will not provide or receive the educational experience our national security needs.
How does this get fixed? Whilst recognizing key differences, the curriculum and schedule could be revamped to match that of a good quality graduate degree program. Of course, time must be set aside for the necessary practicums and exercises: Placing them at the end of the main school year after the classes would allow students to apply the knowledge they had gained. If they are to remain compulsory, the number of guest speakers should be limited. With a reduction in scheduled hours to normal graduate school levels, CGSC could then reasonably expect its officers to study for an average of 20 to 30 hours per week in addition to class time. After all, the School of Advanced Military Studies manages to function (relatively well) with roughly 16 hours of class time per week. The advantages of a change to fewer hours in the classroom would be improved student and faculty morale, and more (not less) learning. Additionally, there would be improved productivity and quality. Plus, the faculty would actually have time to research and write, which is something the Army claims to value. It is also something that will have to happen if CGSC is to mirror Harvard as Gen. Cone wants. Finally, it would also allow students to get the time with their families that Gen. Odierno thinks is so important.
Dr. Nicholas Murray is an associate professor in the Department of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and Staff College. His book The Rocky Road to the Great War (Potomac Books) came out this year. He recently published “To fix critical thinking within PME, start at the ground floor with the basic stuff” and “Officer Education: What Lessons Does the French Defeat in 1871 Have for the US Army Today?” in the Small Wars Journal. His views are his own. They are not yours.