Westpoint: 1978


Captain Rhone mentioned other signs of improvement. More women now feel free to wear skirts instead of trousers when the regulations permit—skirts may be worn in class, for example, but not on parade—and fewer women in last summer’s entering class quit during the first two months of training, traditionally known as Beast Barracks. This decline may have been due in part to the admissions office having made a special effort to tell prospective women cadets just what they were in for, going so far as to include in a pamphlet mailed to women candidates statements by several women who had tried West Point and concluded it was not for them. “If I were a man I’d still be there,” one woman wrote. “I quit because I felt I was being forced to play the role of a man, being de-feminized. I guess I’m too much of a lady for the military.” But the women whom I met seemed to feel no conflict between being a woman and being an army officerthough some said they would not want to become combat leaders even if the law allowed them to, which it doesn’t. Rather, they seemed exhilarated by their ability to hold their own in a man’s world. One woman, admitting that some men still ride women cadets pretty hard, said tolerantly, “We sort of hurt their egos, I think, their male pride. But there are a lot of guys who have learned to respect us when we show them that we can do what is expected of us.”

When cadets are asked why they chose to go to West Point, they very often mention its good academic reputation. But critics, including the study group generals, have questioned how well that reputation is merited. Classes at West Point seldom consist of more than fourteen or fifteen cadets- the size Thayer liked—and they are almost all taught by Regular Army officers, typically by captains or majors in their late twenties or early thirties. Instructors, who are referred to by cadets as “P’s” (for “professors”), may require cadets to leap to attention when they come into the classroom, and in mathematics classes a cadet who has worked out a problem on the blackboard, and is called on to explain what he has done, may be expected to begin his recitation with the words, “Sir, I was required to prove.…”(Some P’s favor a democratized version of this formula, which dates back to Thayer: “ Gentlemen , I was required to prove.…”)

What sometimes troubles visitors to West Point classrooms is not the military atmosphere—many instructors run their classes in a comparatively relaxed and informal fashion—but the meagerness of the intellectual fare. This is not necessarily the fault of the individual instructor. An officer who comes to West Point hoping to initiate his students into the joys of intellectual discovery is almost certain to be frustrated. As the study group pointed out, cadets don’t have time to think.

The trouble is not just that cadets have to carry more courses than ordinary college students. Parades, inspections, and physical training all eat into their study time. So do intramural athletics; athletics have been compulsory since MacArthur was superintendent, and when classes end at three o’clock, West Point’s main street—its name, predictably, is Thayer Roadfills with hundreds upon hundreds of cadets double-timing in formation out to the academy’s vast playing fields. Cadets also spend a lot of time on what are known as chain-of-command responsibilities. These may include such tasks as drawing up a company duty roster or “burning” a plebe whose hair appears to be a millimeter too long.

In these circumstances, which preclude asking cadets to do much reading in any one course, many instructors settle for what is known as passing out the poop: supplying cadets with a sufficient stock of key phrases or formulas to get them through their examinations. “In the classroom,” a former instructor told the authors of School for Soldiers , “we present the cadet with pre-packaged increments of bite-sized knowledge that he can digest within the constraints of the system, because we know that’s the only way he will be able to handle the material.” Several cadets told me that in one or more courses they were simply memorizing the textbook. One senior, a slow-speaking Southerner who said, “I just love it here so much, I really do—I love it,” nevertheless added, “I’d like to see more classes where they make you think, instead of just regurgitating what you read the night before.” More than half the cadets questioned in a recent survey listed one or more of their courses “as offering knowledge they would not retain beyond test time.”