Best Defense

Future of the Army: We need more officers with human educations, not fewer

During the recent annual AUSA gathering in Washington, one of the contemporary military forums addressed the development of future leaders.

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By Col. Greg Kaufmann, U.S. Army (Ret.)
Best Defense liberal arts advocate

During the recent annual AUSA gathering in Washington, one of the contemporary military forums addressed the development of future leaders. To their credit, the organizers of this particular forum foreswore the classic packed panel of senior officers and NCOs in favor of a range of military and civilian personnel spanning the complete PME spectrum from pre-commissioning to senior leader telling their individual stories. Regrettably, the opportunity to address the baccalaureate educational piece of pre-commissioning PME was ignored. The ROTC cadet addressed the complex, realistic training he received at the summer Cadet Leadership Course with nary a mention of his studies, an unfortunate exclusion. Why?

After more than a decade of war involving close and often personal interaction with people of other cultures, beliefs, and customs, the Army is once again turning its attention to the need to re-establish its competence and capacity for conventional, force-on-force combat. As seen in past historical patterns of post-conflict reorientation, the Army emphasizes its high-technology capabilities and its anticipation of future high-technology advances. Also included in this narrative is the development of agile and adaptive leaders.

Unfortunately, as seen in public statements and regulatory guidance, the Army champions an undergraduate education in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines for its future leaders in precommissioning PME, offering STEM-related point bonuses when determining OML standing and branching preferences. However, that endorsement of a STEM education stands in direct opposition to the descriptive leader narrative that emerges through close textual reading and analysis of the many publications (here, over 60 pubs) addressing leadership and leader preparation. This narrative clearly identifies outcomes that can only be met through a broad-based education best accomplished through a liberal arts education.

The national security establishment unsurprisingly publishes thousands of documents that serve to direct, guide, or suggest actions to the armed services in the execution of their duties. Starting with the National Security Strategy published by the White House, and following the cascading narrative thread through the various textual levels of the establishment — Congress, Department of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and ending in this case with the U.S. Army — a distinct and ever-more specific discussion of leader expectations, knowledge, attributes, and competencies can be isolated. With specific attention to the Army, this textual narrative thread belies the actions supporting pre-commissioning STEM education.

Unsurprisingly, given the massive amount of written texts, contradictions arise. However, this particular contradiction carries implications beyond the normal. When the future officer graduates and is commissioned as a new second lieutenant, state-sanctioned as a manager of violence, he or she immediately assumes responsibility for soldiers (and their families) assigned to his or her platoon and for leading them across a full range of missions from direct combat to post-conflict stability operations in a foreign location surrounded by indigenous populations to defense support to civilian authorities within the United States. The human complexity of the lieutenant’s responsibilities argues for the liberal arts as the optimum precommissioning education for the future officer. A liberal arts graduate builds a flexible cognition comfortable with uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity having been exposed to a multi-faceted education. But more importantly, this graduate is also numerically and scientifically literate.

STEM is important. But for this one, specific population of undergraduates, facing unique demands upon graduation and commissioning, the liberal arts should be emphasized, not minimized.

Greg Kaufmann, COL(R), US Army, recently received his Doctor of Liberal Studies degree from Georgetown University arguing “The Military Imperative for the Liberal Arts.” His own career experience including NATO, Senior Army Fellow, airborne aviation battalion commander, OSD Balkans Task Force Director, USMA Assistant Professor of English, and G-3/5/7 tours underpin his passionate belief in this pre-commissioning educational path. Three future installments will address discrete elements of his argument.

Image credit: John E. Sheridan/U.S. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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