Westpoint: 1978

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If the reforms the Army has called for are put into effect, West Point will become more like an ordinary college and less like a military boarding school. To list some of the changes that are contemplated, fewer courses will be required of cadets, and they will take more, and more advanced, électives. Many pointless chores will be done away with—the study group noted the absurdity of “the squad leader who consumes precious time going from room to room to announce information which should be posted on a central bulletin board”—and there will be more time for study. Instructors will be less narrowly restricted by course outlines and standardized lesson plans, and there will be more visiting professors. There will be less emphasis on engineering and much more on dealing with questions to which there are no set answers. “Somewhere down the trail cadets may be coming up against problems far more complex than the problems senior officers have to deal with now,” I was told by Colonel Joseph H. Beasley, an erudite chaplain, and a highly regarded teacher, who is a senior member of the Department of History. “Maybe one of the most useful things we can do for them now is to confront them with questions—about the meaning of a poem, for example—that they can’t answer simply by manipulating data.”

Not everybody at the academy is entirely happy about the study group’s proposals. A few think they do not go far enough toward breaking down the walls that separate West Point from the world. They argue, for instance, that what is needed are not just a few more visiting professors, but a massive infusion of scholar-teachers that would shatter the rigid mold in which most instruction is now cast. Many more people worry, by contrast, about the extent to which the Army seems determined to civilianize the academy. They believe that West Point’s main business is not to open up and cultivate the minds of cadets, but to train their characters. As they see it, this is not just a matter of producing officers who will respond in orderly and predictable ways to the demands of military life. West Point graduates must also exemplify, in a way no civilian in uniform can be expected to do, the standards of conduct implied by West Point’s motto, “Duty—Honor—Country.”

The generals heading up the study group did not neglect the moral formation of West Point cadets. Indeed, much of what they had to say on the subject of the academy’s honor code system suggests an uneasy conviction that the moral armor with which cadets are fitted out at West Point may be dangerously brittle. To strengthen it they recommend, among other things, that cadets be given a much bigger dose of philosophy, with emphasis on “Ethical issues of interest to Army officers. …” This may provide an opportunity for officers and cadets to think hard about a question that, so far as I could tell, is not much talked about at West Point. The question is: why, for all the academy’s heavy stress on truthfulness and honor, West Pointers engaged during the Vietnam War in such forms of organizational, or quasi-official, dishonesty as faking body counts, fudging intelligence estimates, and covering up atrocities. It is a question to which there is obviously no set answer, but is hard to think of one that it is more important for West Point, and the Army, to come to grips with.

 

SYLVANUS THAYER: THE MAN WHO MADE WEST POINT