Best Defense

To fix critical thinking within PME, start at the ground floor with the basic stuff

By Nicholas Murray Best Defense department of restoring standards to PME The Army has a critical thinking problem. To fix it, most focus on the need to change the culture of the organization and the curricula of the staff schools and higher. Fixing this will help, but only from the mid-career point onward. If we ...

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Wikimedia

By Nicholas Murray

Best Defense department of restoring standards to PME

The Army has a critical thinking problem. To fix it, most focus on the need to change the culture of the organization and the curricula of the staff schools and higher. Fixing this will help, but only from the mid-career point onward. If we really want to change the way the officer corps thinks, we need to start from the ground up. That is, if we are truly going to fix Professional Military Education, we must begin with a potential officer’s undergraduate education.

Having recently written an article for the Small Wars Journal examining Professional Military Education through the lens of history, I was struck by the number of other articles dealing with the general subject area. Almost all of them, however, including mine, were focused on the staff officer schools or higher. This got me thinking.

Perhaps the problem starts much earlier in our system of commissioning. Here at the CGSC I see a number of perfectly capable and bright officers who lack fairly basic knowledge of their own history. Additionally, I’ve noticed that many of them have never heard of the Treaty of Westphalia, and some have only the vaguest awareness of international politics. Lacking such a foundation means that they often flounder in classes where such issues are discussed, and I have read many complaints about how this affects their ability to understand the broader context of their role around the world. Additionally, the lack of educational breadth means it is more difficult for them to grasp how things fit together. Both Max Boot‘s and Harun Dogo‘s recent guest posts address some of these issues and look at some of the consequent problems; they also gave me food for thought.

What, then, can we do to address some of these issues before officers reach the middle stage of their career? An email from a cadet at the USMA pushed me further in contemplating an answer (in it he reminded me of a guest post he wrote for Best Defense outlining some thoughts on his experience). I thus came to the question: Why not do something more radical than simply tweak what we do at the staff schools and above? Why not start from the ground up? If all officers in the U.S. Army had to take courses in U.S. history as a requirement of their being commissioned — along with one or two classes in Western civilization (or indeed world civilization), geography, and international relations — we might go some way to providing the background of knowledge that many will need for much of their career. Being an immigrant myself, I think it is a good idea, especially when considering the number of serving soldiers who were born overseas. These classes would also facilitate the broadening of knowledge that is so essential to effective critical thinking. Of course, to become an officer a candidate needs to have completed a four-year college degree. That surely solves the problem, right? Well, maybe not, but it does suggest a solution.

With that in mind I looked at the ROTC and OCS websites for guidance as to which of the above classes are required as a part of the program. Disappointingly, these courses were nowhere mentioned, at least, not that I could find. Furthermore, simply requiring a four-year degree does not guarantee that an incoming officer has taken even one of these classes let alone all of them — it really depends upon which school they attended and what that particular school’s academic requirements for a degree were. This is important because a solid base in these subjects would provide much needed context for classes discussing strategy — which they will need later in their careers. It would also provide a greater number of people who know something about the next piece of ground over which we have to fight. That would be no bad thing. In its defense, the Army does require that potential officers take a course in American military history, but that is largely driven by the learning of facts (no bad thing) without the broader analysis and context of what those facts mean (not a good thing). Thus, it does not really address the central issue.

We need to change the way we educate officers before they start their careers. This is a solution to the Army’s critical thinking problem. Additionally, fixing it this way would at least mean that when officers show up for their education at the staff schools and above they already have the grounding necessary for them to focus on the essential. That is, preparing themselves intellectually for the next ten years. That is, after all, our mission.

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) is due out this year, along with an edited book titled Pacification: The Lesser Known French Campaigns (CSI). He recently published "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.

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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