Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

A recent faculty member’s thoughts on the persistent problems of the Army’s CGSC

In response to the ongoing discussions in this blog about the quality of education the Army’s Command and General Staff College, here are some thought.




By Joseph R. Fischer, Ph.D.
Best Defense guest respondent

In response to the ongoing discussions in this blog about the quality of education the Army’s Command and General Staff College, here are my thought.

1. Is CGSC more about training or education?

CGSC is more about training than education, given assigned teaching hours and scheduling priorities. It may claim to strive toward creating agile and adaptive officers, traits more commonly associated with education than training, but if scheduling is any indicator, training trumps education. We have an ongoing war over teaching hours. In general, History, Leadership, and some DJMO courses count as education; DTAC is training. DTAC dominates the training schedule. The schedule revolves around exercises and all else is subordinated to that reality. What this means for the education courses is that they are pushed into two classes per week, generally with curtailed readings at the start of AOWC. If time to read and reflect on assignments is important, this is counterproductive. Accreditation by way of North Central Association of Colleges, fortunately, emphasizes education hours, which provides a certain security to the education part of the curriculum. Most of DTAC’s hours if not all do not count toward accreditation.

2. Will the history department go away?

Doubtful it disappears but perhaps for the wrong reason. At start of the current school year, History had sixty contact hours per student. Before the end of Core, the director of CGSS had that contact time cut to fifty-eight. Are more hours at risk? Possibly, but there are other issues in play. Unstated is the need for people with Ph.Ds. to sit on MMAS boards. There has to be a Ph.D. on every MMAS board. The density of Ph.Ds. is highest in DMH. When the MMAS program comes up for discussion, the assumption is that DMH will man the oars for MMAS boards. This issue absolutely burns the white space/time of DMH professors as well as anyone else involved in the process. The issue largely escapes the administration’s focus.

3. Will the history department’s curriculum be significantly changed?

This is the great unknown. The current director of CGSS has spoken frequently of “relevance.” Most of us are not quite sure what he means. When it comes to history, relevance is often apparent in the rear view mirror. Too frequently for non-historians, historical relevance is related to time between the event and the present, with an unstated assumption that less is better. The director of CGSS has suggested the concept of integrating the curriculum, which, as many of us see it, means relegating history to a supportive case study kind of role. While keeping our own curriculum, we tried this road back in the Petraeus era with the old Case Studies in COIN block of instruction (I-100), only to have that approach to COIN begin to disappear shortly after the general’s departure from Leavenworth. (I have real issue with case studies. They tend to be a cherry pick of history to support doctrine, an approach that undermines the teaching of ability and adaptability in that each historical event is unique.) The current director seems to think that our approach is not what he wishes, although he seems unclear as to what right looks like. Bottom line is a fair amount of chaos but not much direction. If the army is serious about adaptive and agile leadership, we need to continue something akin to what we are doing in terms of history. I have argued that the value of history is not in the facts but rather the questioning skills it develops. If the Army seeks decision and fears the ambiguity of the world, more doctrine//MDMP is not the way to go.

5. What role does academic freedom play at CGSC?

There is an active but subtle effort to silence anyone on the faculty who criticizes the school. This is not difficult to do in an institution in which tenure does not exist. Sometimes the pressure is not so subtle. I listened to one of my peers being lectured by a high-ranking member of the administration concerning his posts to this blog. My colleague’s comments concerning our bloated curriculum and excessive contact hours were arguably correct, his commitment to improving CGSC quite genuine. The discussion, however, was not welcome within the walls of the school, let alone outside of them. Before I left in December, there was an active effort to find someone to refute one of the earlier blogs on this site. Within my own department, the department head has on more than one occasion made clear his distain for a too candid approach to anything on Tom Ricks’ blog. Less is better; silence is golden.

6. Do feedback loops exist to connect faculty to administration?

Yes, in theory. In practice, I fear not. There is a faculty council, but the opinion of many is that it is nearly useless. There is a yearly Command Climate survey. The last one was done in December 2015 (perhaps November 2015). Results are not yet back and the bet is that it will not be released until the accreditation process is complete (next month?). The last Command Climate Survey was not kind to some members of the administration for what is generally seen as a lack of leadership and a failure to build a team environment. I expect this one to follow the same pattern as if anything, frustration levels have increased. We are struggling to understand what “right” looks like.

A closing observation: General Odierno stated in February 2013 “the Army has proven itself across the most recent wars in the most difficult environment” or words to that effect. In a fall 2015 meeting, the Director CGSS noted that we have the best Army we have ever had. The general and the colonel may well be right but as one very brave O-5 in our department responded, testing the thesis is not so easy, as we have not gained a favorable decision to the war in Iraq or Afghanistan. As a banner that once hung over Grant Avenue proclaimed a few years ago, the Army is all about “Decisive Action.” Perhaps we really do need an honest soul-searching look at our Army and its educational institutions.

Joseph R. Fischer is a retired Professor from the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He was CGSC Civilian Instructor of the Year in 2006 and the author of A Well-Executed Failure: The Sullivan Campaign Against the Iroquois. He is also a retired Army Reserve officer, an Iraq war veteran. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of CGSC, the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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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