I did an on-line chat yesterday (Monday) on WashingtonPost.com about whether to shutter the service academies and war colleges. I thought it was a pretty good conversation, but I wasn't real impressed with the comments ostensibly coming from West Point cadets.
I actually think the war colleges are fatter, slower-moving targets than the service academies. But I think both sets of institutions need to think harder about educating officers for the 21st century environment. We need mental agility.
Meanwhile, another cadet (not a plebe) checks in. I am quoting this with his permission:
Your comment about the classes at West Point is generally correct. While West Point attracts a large number of highly qualified individuals, it naturally gets some duds as well. The core classes, which constitutes three-fourths of the curriculum, tend to cater to these "left tailers" as my econometrics teachers likes to refer to them. I can tell you that I probably learned more from AP classes in high school than I have in a number of my classes here. The English department is particularly abysmal.
On the whole, the Academy does a poor job creating a environment that facilitates intellectual development. Classes involve very little creative and instead emphasize rote memorization. It reminds my of the image of the Catholic school master who lashes students hands for making spelling mistakes. Some classes are better than others, but in general West Point has failed to keep up with advances in university-level education.
That being said, I am an economics major and have had very good experiences within the Department of Social Sciences. Many of the younger instructors have already earned doctorates and all of them are very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about their disciplines. However, in my experience this level of competence is generally limited to the Department of Social Science, hence why I decided to become an economics major.
Cadets do tend to have a very cynical outlook on the Army. This general stems from West Point's command climate. Without going into too much detail, it tends to disincentivize academic performance, which causes some cadets who would flourish elsewhere to fall by the wayside."
And another reader argues that I probably have underestimated the costs of operating West Point:
I think the figure you gave as $300K per officer graduates is low. Low by at least 25%. I worked there for 5.5 years, during a time when my two sons were cadets, Classes of '05 and '06. I seem to recall that the cost/cadet for the Class of 2004 was a bit over $400K. I don't know how to prove that figure, but the Cadet Command at West Point have documents that show pretty precise cost figures. That is, if they don't exclude some costs which a reporter or layman would not know existed.
I am ROTC (Colo Sch of Mines, 1961), my two sons are West Pointers. I tend to agree with you. The military academy costs need looked at as they approach $500K/officer. Maybe we also should consider a system like the Brits and Sandhurst, college first, then military school for one or two years."
Peter Feaver, a former Bush White House aide who is now undergoing rehab at Duke University, also conducted a discussion about this issue. Here is what one discussant who once taught at West Point had to say:
I am a 27-year Army veteran, an ROTC graduate and also a former West Point instructor. Throughout my military career, I consistently found that ROTC graduates were better prepared to lead, and had a better sense of the role of the military in our society, than their West Point counterparts. While I was teaching at West Point I used to joke with friends (with a nod to Groucho Marx) that I would never attend a university that would have me on the faculty. Although the officers assigned to teach at West Point were thoroughly dedicated to their work, few had any ability or opportunity to encourage cadets to think critically rather than simply learn the syllabus. Daily life at West Point was so structured, with so many requirements and restrictions upon the cadets, that few showed any motivation beyond simply getting through. Perhaps not surprisingly, I also found few cadets who had any inclination to make the Army a career. Whether the country is getting its money's worth out of the academies is a question worth exploring."
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.