Best Defense

Want to adapt to a complex world? Get yourself some liberally educated officers

In late 2013, a past CG of U.S. Army Cadet Command justified the previously mentioned point bonus for STEM degrees because those cadets chose 'difficult academic majors.'

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By Greg Kaufmann
Best Defense department of education

In late 2013, a past CG of U.S. Army Cadet Command justified the previously mentioned point bonus for STEM degrees because those cadets chose “difficult academic majors.” Well, a philosophy major or a person doing advanced close reading of an author’s oeuvre might disagree with the CG on what “difficult” means. The liberal arts — humanities, social sciences, natural sciences and math — best contribute to the Army’s stated desire for a leader able to reconcile and integrate disparate threads of knowledge and information so as to accomplish the mission in a complex, ambiguous, and uncertain environment while leading their diverse elements.

Writing in 2006, MG(R) Bob Scales, acknowledging that responsibility for prosecution of war slipped to the lowest junior officer and the conditions they would face, noted that these “young, inexperienced leaders” did not have much time to prepare to “make strategic decisions.” A platoon leader in Iraq captured the junior officer’s dilemma well: “Leading a real platoon was far more complex than I had imagined, and it involved much more than the tactics, endurance and analysis I had learned at West Point. It demanded the tact of a marriage counselor, the ear of a priest, and the skills of a social worker — and all this before anyone fired a shot in combat.” Cognitively preparing the cadets during their undergraduate education through the liberal arts prepares them for these challenges.

Of all the disciplines, literature is most often dismissed as applicable to a warrior leader. Yet Elizabeth Samet found that in dealing with the indeterminate nature of literary texts over the course of a semester, the cadets she taught at West Point would eventually become confident in offering their own judgments as to the meaning of the texts. Samet believes the emerging ability to render judgment on such texts is key to moral courage, a desired leader attribute. Literature can bestow “a particular kind of knowing… consist[ing] in an ability to know more than one truth, to rest in uncertainty when uncertainty is required, and to change one’s mind when the evidence demands.” Samet would later assert, “The sense that the study of literature can create atmospheres of productive discomfort in which such traits might be fostered animates my belief in it as a teacher. A cadet might refine analytic skills and observation through practice at close reading, and she may also thereby acquire a sophisticated sense of narrative.”

John Carey takes up the indistinctness of literature as an important formative step for the individual. “Literature’s power to strengthen one’s sense of selfhood and individuality… depends, to a large extent, on this capacity to cultivate and enfranchise the reader’s private, individual imagining… The reader, that is, not only can, but must, come to some kind of accommodation with the indistinctness in order to take meaning from the text. For that, the imagination must operate.”

Literature helps counter rapid cognitive closure which is a person’s need “to reach a quick conclusion in decisionmaking and an aversion to ambiguity and confusion. It encourages ‘seizing’ on an early statement or proposition in the process of acquiring knowledge, followed by rigidly ‘freezing’ on the seized item and remaining impervious to additional information.” A research team at University of Toronto found that reading fictional literature led to a decrease in this need for rapid cognitive closure.

Finally, the multidisciplinary aspect of the liberal arts helps the cadet become an integrative thinker. Professor Frederick Aquino of Notre Dame has formulated a theory of an “integrative habit of mind” that speaks clearly to the Army’s narrative of an effective leader. It “entails a stable disposition and a capacity to grasp how various pieces of data and areas of inquiry fit together in light of one another, thereby acquiring a more comprehensive understanding of the issue at hand. It also entails deciphering how this kind of understanding applies to a given situation.”

If the Army establishment believes in half of what is written in its strategies, doctrine, and concepts, then perhaps the liberal arts will become valued as the smart pre-commissioning education of choice.

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 experiences underpin his passionate belief in this pre-commissioning educational path. This is the final part of a four part series. He is acting to make his thesis publically available. Anyone wishing to contact him may do so

Photo credit: alexkon/Flickr/Wikimedia Commons

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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