Sunday, November 04, 2007


An enterprising gentleman started a website which is an informational sight for anyone aspiring to go to a Military Academy (Army, Navy, Coast guard and AF). I was reading some of the entries on the conversation threads which I found really interesting. It was kind of nostalgic to read what the kids were writing…their hopes, fears and questions mirroring those I held myself six years ago.

One of the threads revolved around a posting by an old grad by the name of John T. Reed. I went to his website and read all he had to say about West Point and West Point graduates and found myself getting angry. I know, I know…most of you are probably pretty tired about reading my thoughts about West Point after all this time, but I was so worked up by his posting that I had to respond. (admittedly, I have put more time into writing this than it deserves…)

I wont bother doing a point by point because 1. that’s just annoying and 2. it takes forever, so instead, I’ll point to some of the areas I most strongly disagree (or simply think he’s made a mistake in logic). Basically, his premise is that West Point graduates don’t do as well (or, at least, relatively better in payoff with regard to the cost incurred) than their ROTC/OCS counterparts in the military sector or civilian counterparts in the civilian sector. To backup this argument, he mainly compares West Point graduates and educational experience to Harvard Business School graduates and educational experience. While at first this may seem a valid comparison since he attended both institutions, it seems unfair to compare West Point (an undergrad institution) with HBS, a graduate school.

Oddly, I think the largest problem I found with his critique of West Point was his argument against the level of education, breadth of education and instructors. I writes:
None of my classes ever applauded a teacher at West Point. I never heard of anyone ever doing it at West Point. The teachers there were focused just on teaching at least for those three years, but they were workmanlike, not great. Many of the teachers at Harvard Business were great. Ovations were commonplace there.
I got a great education at Harvard. At West Point, I got a good education. Roughly speaking, the Harvard Business School professors are full-time, long-term teachers. The West Point instructors are just passing through and they are primarily trying to succeed as Army officer bureaucrats, not teachers. As teachers, they are temps.

I can’t speak of the level of instructor he had when attending West Point almost forty years ago, but I can speak of the instructors I had while there. The level of teaching was not only amazingly professional, but also personal. Where else would your Statistics teacher re-tool a weeks worth of lessons because he knows his students are having trouble in Physics? The Professors at West Point, both civilian and military, are approachable and professional and were some of the smartest people I have ever met. To name a few, Dr. Schake, Dr. Silverstone, COL Jebb, LTC Nielsen, Dr. Sherlock, Dr. Beitler, Dr. Forest and COL (Ret.) Jacobs—Medal of Honor…and those are just the professors from the Social Science Department I had the privilege of learning from. To claim that simply because teachers rotate through on a three year tour is a bit misleading. The rotating faculty does come through for three year tours, however, many of them go into the Army to gain more experience and return to West Point for another five year tour before becoming permanent teaching faculty.

One of his silliest arguments is where he points out that UC Berkley has parking spots that read “NL only” for Nobel Laureates while West Point reserves spots for the Supt., Comm, Dean and others of rank thus proving that West Point values rank over accomplishment. First of all, it should be obvious that it is simply military protocol anywhere on post to have reserved parking for General Officers (and Sergeants Major) regardless of if the building is the headquarters or the bowling alley. However, why is it that there are more Nobel Laureates at Berkeley than at West Point? He points out earlier that West Point has an advantage because the Professors are there to teach not research or publish…but, how does one get a Nobel Prize? They are awarded for breakthroughs in Medicine, Physics, Chemistry, Literature, Economics and Peace. It seems to me that one would have to devote himself to researching in said fields (minus peace of course) to be awarded the Nobel, however, focused on teaching, our Professors can’t achieve that level. (One of the members of the Nobel Board, COL Franz (Ret.) does work in West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center however). My point is simply that choosing an arbitrary measure such as the number of Nobel Laureates at an institution as a measure of what that institution values is flawed. (Not to mention, one must question how likely the Nobel Foundation would be to give the award to someone in the Military in any case…while I can’t find any numbers, I can only think of three off the top of my head—if you count Yasser Arafat.)

I could probably write more about how he has no concept of what a West Point cadet’s schedule (daily or academically) is like now, forty years later, or of how he constantly compares apples to shoes in an attempt to draw distinctions in which West Point comes up short, but I will stop now. Where he does have a point, however, is that having a West Point degree probably doesn’t “open doors” or give a marked advantage in the civilian sector like it once did…however, if that’s someone’s reason for going to USMA in the first place, maybe s/he should consider going elsewhere?


Blogger buckarooskidoo said...

I think you made the key point when you noted that trying to compare West Point with UC/Berkeley or one of the other great research institutions is an apples-and-oranges thing. West Point HAS no graduate school, it is focused on educating undergraduates, and therefore it SHOULD have a marked emphasis on teaching. Which is not to say that people who emphasize teaching should not be doing their own research--you have to in order to maintain your edge in the classroom and advance your own knowledge--it's just that an undergraduate institution is not going to have the heavy focus on research. Certainly none of the best liberal arts colleges allocate their time and resources that way, either.
My own institution asks us to focus equally on teaching and research, and it is usually true that one of those two gets cheated regularly. There are only 24 hours in a day. I keep asking for more to be inserted, but no one has managed that yet.
I don't think I would worry about one contrarian's view of your institution. The quality of your writing and thought suggests that WP is a rigorous and demanding place that prepares its people well for the military and the wider world.

11:56 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Hey, there's a neat profile of a West Point professor of English on NPR today.

3:55 PM  

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