Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

A view from Canada on the Air War College: Judge its graduates as practitioners, not as academics

I think this is a valuable contribution to the discussion. Still, I wonder if lax standards really helps produce first-class practitioners. By Marc W.D. Tyrrell Best Defense Canadian view columnist The "debate," actually statement of positions, over the scholarly validity and pragmatic value of the Air War College (AWC) is, perhaps, most intriguing for two ...

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

I think this is a valuable contribution to the discussion. Still, I wonder if lax standards really helps produce first-class practitioners.

By Marc W.D. Tyrrell
Best Defense Canadian view columnist

I think this is a valuable contribution to the discussion. Still, I wonder if lax standards really helps produce first-class practitioners.

By Marc W.D. Tyrrell
Best Defense Canadian view columnist

The "debate," actually statement of positions, over the scholarly validity and pragmatic value of the Air War College (AWC) is, perhaps, most intriguing for two reasons: a) what each side assumes and b) what is not said.

Dr. Hughes’ position is, at least on the surface, quite clear: the AWC is not a "real" academic institution. Much of his chapter goes towards anecdotally indicating specific examples of where and why the AWC fails as a "real" university. While I suspect that some of his anecdotal examples have been chosen for rhetorical reasons (shock effect), none of his vignettes surprise me and I have heard similar ones from other faculty, both civilian and "colonel-doctors." Indeed, one of his accusations, Paternalism, is beautifully illustrated in GEN Kane’s response:

In that same spirit, as the current Commandant, I am obviously saddened to find that although Dr. Hughes had the rare and unique privilege of shaping the leadership and critical thinking skills of literally thousands of our future Air Force, sister service, interagency and international officers, he was so personally and professionally dissatisfied with a major part of his life’s work. I am also disappointed to find that despite Dan’s long years of service, he apparently never truly understood or appreciated the unique blend and balance of training, education and experience required to develop national security leaders for the future of our nation, as well as that of our coalition and allied partner nations.

I would ask you to note one thing in the above quote. In the first sentence, note how the idealized mission of the AWC is coupled with the reference to "Dr. Hughes", while in the second sentence we see "disappointed" and "never truly understood or appreciated" coupled with "Dan." While the overt tonality is "more sorrow than anger," the expression of that tonality is extremely paternalistic. Obvious, since Dr. Hughes "doesn’t get it", we should just treat him as a child: "Dan."

GEN Kane’s response is a rhetorical masterpiece. Indeed, it is of such high quality, I may well use it the next time I am teaching about rhetoric. Its overall goal is simple: to discredit Dr. Hughes’ position without appearing to be mean spirited. As to why Dr. Hughes’ position should be discredited, this should be obvious given the title of the initial post in this "debate" – "Need budget cuts? We probably can start by shutting the Air War College." For GEN Kane, Dr. Hughes’ chapter is not merely the rumblings of a disgruntled academic, it is a potential existential threat to be met in the appropriate manner.

If this "debate" were really about academic quality and standards, it would not be taking place in the manner (or venue) in which it is. That said, it is important to look at what is left out by both positions and why this might be. Put simply, the Air War College is not a university in the cultural sense of the term: it is a professional school designed to produce practitioners in much the same manner as legal, medical and engineering schools – a polytechnic rather than academic institution. Why, then, should there be such a fooforah over "academic quality" when the purpose of the AWC is to produce practitioners rather than academics?

The answer is simple: in the civilian world, "academics" have a certain cachet and status that stems from the idea that academics are "scientists"; the shamans of the physical (and sometimes social) world. In some cases, perhaps surprisingly to some, this is true. This is, after all, the ideal behind the "academy," and it is the principle that undergirds the concepts of tenure and academic freedom that Dr, Hughes highlights. But this ideal of science operating in the academy is very uncomfortable to many since it relies on the basic idea that we, as scientists, can never know absolute "truth," we can only approximate it. As scientists, at least for those of us who espouse Baconian empiricism which is the basis of modern science, we can never say that "science has proven that…," only that "science has disproven…"

But practitioners do not and, in fact, should not hold the mindset of scientists. This is especially true for practitioners in fields, such as the military, where one cannot experiment except in the most limited settings. Indeed, practitioner fields, on the whole, bear the same relationship to their academic counterparts as engineering does to physics. Engineers are not scientists, although they are empiricists. In a similar manner, graduates of the AWC Master of Strategic Studies are not political scientists despite the oft-heard dictum that warfare is an extension of politics (policy) by other means.

Rather than concentrating on whether or not the AWC should produce top quality academics and scientists, the discussion should be concentrating on whether or not the AWC produces top quality practitioners. Reformulating the discussion, however, would require that the AWC give up its claims to being an "academic" institution, and the concomitant status of producing "scientists" and supporting science and basic research. With a few minor exceptions (the AF Language, Culture and Religion program centre come to mind), the Air University is not in the business of science and, in my humble opinion, appears foolish when it tries to assert that it is.

Marc W.D. Tyrrell, Ph.D. is a symbolic Anthropologist and Senior Research Fellow with the Canadian Centre of Intelligence and Security Studies at the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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