Best Defense

Liberal arts and military officers (II): To get the officers it says it wants, the Army should give them liberal arts educations

In asserting the value of a liberal arts education for future officers, the essential basis is not the current, value-laden back and forth of STEM vs liberal arts education but rather the Army’s leader and leader development narrative.

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

In asserting the value of a liberal arts education for future officers, the essential basis is not the current, value-laden back and forth of STEM vs liberal arts education but rather the Army’s leader and leader development narrative.

This is a narrative that flows from many sources, but given that sources such as lessons learned eventually end up in current doctrine or future-looking concepts, the sources of my analysis start with the NSS, cascading down through the varied strata of documents to the Army’s own specific strategies, concepts, and doctrine dealing with the topic. In my study, I analyzed more than 60 such texts, plus speeches, testimonies, articles, briefings, and webpages dealing with this topic.

The narrative that emerges progresses from very generic expectations at the national level to very specific attributes and competencies at the Army concept and doctrinal levels. It is in these specific texts one finds the desired intrinsic aspects of a leader—what qualities, what ethic, what values, what attributes—that contribute to the leader’s effectiveness in any position, whether command or staff. Here, just a few select texts will be used to illustrate the argument.

At the broadest conceptual level, the Army Capstone Concept captures many elements of the grand narrative: prevent, shape, win; operational adaptability; complex environments (carried through in the Army Operating Concept). Complex is just one descriptor of the environments challenging the future leader. To this can be added other such descriptors: ambiguous, uncertain, volatile. Human activity is one facet of this environmental stew. In the ACC, in terms of human activity, the aspects needing attention include the “moral, cognitive, social, and physical.” It goes on to discuss further leader development needs in terms of moral and ethical action and independent thinking. Much of this is carried through in the AOC’s list of required capabilities for the future force. It recognizes the uncertainty and chaos encountered, that   technology has its limits, and it emphasizes “the human, cultural, and political continuities” leaders face. These examples set the broad outline for leader development into the future and point to cognitive flexibility as a necessary ingredient for the successful leader to include the new lieutenant.

What about now? The expected challenges facing the officers and leaders are amply identified in the family of increasingly specific doctrinal texts. With a nod to the entire family of texts which all contain some leader challenges, the specific discussion of leader attributes and competencies is found in ADRP 6-22, Army Leadership. There are detailed descriptions of each requirement (and nice summary tables for those who wish to skip the explanatory text), to include, for example, the attribute of intellect.   In broad terms, this is the leader’s “mental tendencies and resources that shape conceptual abilities.” Mental agility requires cognitive flexibility, relying on inquisitiveness and ability to reason critically. Such a leader is “eager to understand a broad range of topics and keep an open mind to multiple possibilities” when arriving at a good decision.

In other words, such a leader possesses a high tolerance for ambiguity and is comfortable in such situations. Accepting that a new lieutenant receives the necessary technical and tactical training prior to the first platoon leader assignment, then the cognitive preparation of that lieutenant can best be fulfilled through a pre-commissioning liberal arts education.

Greg Kaufmann 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. Two more installments will address discrete elements of his argument.

Photo Credit: U.S. Army/Flickr

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 @tomricks1

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