Westpoint: 1978

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One reason for this is that most cadets see no point in many of their courses. Until 1957 no électives were offered, and most members of the class that graduates this June were able to take only six or seven électives in their four years at the academy out of a total of forty-eight courses. Many cadets find it particularly hard to choke down the required courses in engineering, which, together with the required science courses, make up close to a third of the core curriculum. The emphasis on applied science is a holdover from Thayer’s time, when West Point was the country’s principal source of professionally trained engineers, both military and civilian. Much of the American West was first explored and mapped by topographical engineers trained at the Point; other academy graduates were responsible for technological marvels ranging from the Panama Canal (dug under the supervision of Major General George Goethals, class of 1880) to the Trans-Siberian Railway (begun by George Whistler, class of 1819, and completed by Thompson Brown, class of 1825).

Today, only about 10 per cent of the academy’s graduates go into the Corps of Engineers, and compulsory engineering courses are now justified partly on the ground that they teach future combat commanders how to make decisions. This rationale fails to impress many cadets. A member of the electrical engineering faculty told the Borman Commission he suspected that not a single cadet would take the junior-year course in electrical engineering—this was the course in which so many cadets turned out to have been cheating in 1976—if he didn’t have to.

Many cadets take pride in being able to thrive in an environment where learning is often seen as a difficult and tricky board game. The smooth adjustment they have made is no doubt due in part to the rigorous conditioning they undergo as plèbes. “We teach cadets to be obedient, conformist—to be good organizational players,” a senior faculty member told me. But the relative ease with which cadets often adapt to the system is also a measure of the kind of young men and women who go to West Point and stick it out there.

Their academic qualifications are reasonably good, the average cadet having scored better on the Scholastic Aptitude Test than the average American college freshman, though not nearly so well as freshmen at, say, Columbia or M.I.T. More significantly, most of them have been “A” students in high school—as a rule, one out of ten entering cadets has been class valedictorian or salutatorian—and many have held such jobs as class or student-body president. In June, 1977, when the present plebe class was sworn in, 209 of its 1,467 members were Eagle Scouts. As everybody tells you at West Point, cadets tend to be overachievers.

But overachieving is harder at West Point than in high school, and many cadets settle for collecting, as efficiently and painlessly as possible, the merit badges they need in order to graduate. When an instructor does try to get cadets to think, they may resent what they see as his unfairness in setting up a new and unnecessary barrier on an academic obstacle course that is already tough enough. Cadets quickly fasten on the notion, which underlies many classroom discussions, that there is only one correct answer to every question. Robert Gurland, a professor of philosophy at New York University, who has been a visiting professor at West Point for the past two years, told me that cadets are often very reluctant to commit themselves. “They’re afraid to say whether they like Thoreau,” he said. “They’re afraid there’s a right answer and a wrong answer.” Another faculty member, a young lieutenant colonel with a Ph.D. in psychology, said sadly, “We ought to teach and tolerate more open-mindedness, more willingness to experiment, more tolerance for ambiguity.”

Distrust of ambiguity is an old military tradition whose grip on West Point is strengthened by the fact that the academy’s faculty are usually soldiers first and scholars second. Before arriving at West Point for a three-year teaching tour, they have ordinarily spent two years at graduate school, at Army expense, earning a master’s degree. Many of these young officers with their decorations and their parachutist badges are enthusiastic teachers, moving their students swiftly and efficiently from point to point. But they do not commonly display the intellectual depth, or the commitment to their subjects, of young professors at, say, Stanford or Princeton.

 
 
 
 
 
 

This is not surprising. Teaching is only one of many jobs the West Point instructor ordinarily will have to tackle in his Army career, and officers who have been tapped for teaching duty at West Point sometimes attack graduate school as if it were a military objective. “They really jump in there without much dilly-dallying around,” a West Point dean has said admiringly. ”… you give a guy a master’s thesis to do; and—wham! Boy, he’s in there working at it. He’s cranking that thing out.”