Academic Exchange Quarterly Summer 2004: Volume 8, Issue 2
Stephen O. Fought,
Mr. Fought is a professor at the
Disclaimer: The views contained in the article are the author's and do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense or any of it's components and activities.
The purpose of character development in the military officer
corps is to produce a leader who can be trusted to bear arms in the name, and
in the defense, of the democracy. Character development is the focus of Officer
Professional Military Education, a process that ranges from pre-commissioning
(undergraduate) to graduate level education at the War Colleges.
The doctor, the lawyer, and the Indian chief go to graduate school –
and they are all in YOUR seminar.
I am writing this article out of a passion for teaching. What is offered here is based entirely on practical experience in the arena of officer professional military education. Because I have no formal grounding in theories of “education,” it is possible that what is presented in this piece cannot be generalized. However, I expect there are a few parallels in executive development, adult education, and perhaps professional graduate schools. In any case I appreciate the opportunity to write down these opinions and to hear back from those who read this article – whether they consider it drivel, dubious, or useful discourse.
They arrive enthusiastic and ready to solve problems. They are quick to distinguish between what is useful and what is fluff. They expect to benefit from their academic year, and they expect their talents to be recognized and exploited. This all has an impact on how they learn, how we should teach, how we select and develop faculty, and faculty responsibilities for curriculum development and research.
How they learn.
I was taught in a traditional sequence:
theory-history-application. Theory to understand new concepts, history to
appreciate how the theory had been applied, then application, to test the
theory, in light of history, on a greatly simplified problem. That approach
will get your arm chewed off at a
Talented, experienced adults are aggressively impatient. They demand proof of relevance. The best method of proof is not to “show them” but to have them convince themselves. The roadmap is application-theory-history, offered in a seminar environment, through real-world cases, accompanied by active student participation in both the learning and teaching processes.
The learning environment.
I was teaching a class on technology and military force structure and the plan was to examine the concepts of “technology pull” and “requirements push” through a case on Precision Guided Munitions. I knew where the discussions would go and I was “in charge” of the classroom. A student interrupted with a dialogue on the Airborne Laser Laboratory (ABL) – a subject about which I knew little, but a system for which he had been the project officer for the last 16 years.
The classroom went electric as he described how engineering decisions ran up against budget and political obstacles; how leadership challenges were played out with contractors, engineers, and in-house physicists; and how the technology of ABL ran against the culture of the Air Force. Others chimed in with their experiences – operationally, in test programs, in the Pentagon, or elsewhere in the research and development field. Along the way, we tossed out the terms “technology pull” and “requirements push” as irrelevant because these expressions didn’t add anything to the group’s understanding of the problem of moving “technology” out of the laboratory and into a weapons system.
That was a watershed experience. Over time I came to appreciate that students learned in approximately equal amounts from professors, from each other, and from the curriculum.  This roughly 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 partitioning is too important to be left to chance.
The first third depends on the professor knowing, and
actively teaching, the material. From time to time I have heard professors
describe their role as “facilitator” – to ask the right questions so that,
somehow, knowledge comes forth from students who had no organized knowledge of
the field when they arrived. This emphasis on process over substance deprives
students of the professors’ expertise and generates a never-ending spiral of
The second third hinges on student preparation and participation. Our students are nearly all Type-A -- they will read the material, in detail. Participation is a more delicate matter. My experience is that most military officers fit the mold of what the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) would label as an “I” (for Introverted thinkers). As a consequence, the norm is to have very intelligent, very well prepared students whose pattern is to “think-to-talk” rather than “talk-to-think.” However, they are in an environment where a large part of their learning experience will come from their peers – so participation is a key ingredient to the group’s success, collectively and individually. Equally important, oral communication is a fact of life in senior executive communication. The bottom line is that it is the professors’ role to encourage, and sometimes even force, participation. It is therefore reasonable to treat “seminar participation” as a graded item, and to consider both quantity and quality of participation in determining that grade.
The final third is the curriculum. The curriculum has to be
current, relevant, and tailored to the students – and that again is the job of
the professor – a task I argue is critical and one that highlights one of the
greatest differences between
The task. The mission of
Critical thinking begins with an open mind.
Properly selected cases bring out diverging opinions from a common set of observations. The professor, when introducing “theory” can make the case that so-called facts are seldom more than interpretations of events and observations made thorough the lens of a particular theory – and that theories are infinite in number, often mutually exclusive, none of which are definitive. In this process, students have to come to grips with the reasoning behind their conclusions. From there, they can appreciate other conclusions and, hopefully, the patience to hold those alternative conclusions as equally useful until the time comes for a decision.
Over time I’ve also seen professors who are critical of nearly everything they encounter, or who take that which is simple and widely understood and make it complicated, both under the guise that they are teaching critical thinking. As the students erred in asking for “just the facts,” these professors are wrong and, I argue, lazy, in equating critical thinking with constant criticism. One can take nearly any argument and poke holes in it. It is easy to cause a student to look foolish, and it takes no effort at all to generate confusion. Good teaching is taking that which is complex and making it simple. Good teaching means generating enthusiasm in students who may lack interest or confidence in their ability to learn. Good teaching is hard work.
The curriculum.  Most
colleges and universities are organized by traditional disciplines (e.g.,
history, political science, physics, language, etc.) under the assumption that
a good grounding in a wide range of academic disciplines, when coupled with
experience, will result in synthesis over time.
Since executives seldom tackle real world problems through
the lens of a single academic discipline (i.e., real world problems require
application of multiple disciplines in concert), the War College curriculum
must, of necessity, be multi-disciplinary  and organized around a broad set
of tasks the graduates are likely to encounter as they move ahead in their
careers (i.e., “output” focused). In my
opinion, the most enduring tasks to be addressed by a
Warfighting is the single most important activity in which a military officer is likely to engage. While all officers will not go to war (thankfully!), and any particular war may not take a long time (hopefully!). The fact that warfighting is the core of the military profession dictates that we single it out to be addressed within our curriculums.
The problem of organizing, training, and equipping the armed forces is the task in which most senior officers will engage during their careers and it is in the area in which they will make the longest lasting contributions. You cannot fight with what you do not have. Deciding what is needed is time consuming and contentious – it typically takes 7-12 years to get a weapon system in the field, and then it remains in the inventory for 30-50 years.
In order to win wars, senior officers have to developing warfighting and resource allocation strategies. Strategy is the process of matching ends and means within the boundaries established by policy. Military officers constantly deal in the problem of matching national and military strategies with forces, present and future.
Leadership is the heart of an officer’s responsibilities – senior officers are expected to be leaders more than they are expected to be experts in a particular field. This role requires a robust understanding of ethics and individual, group and organizational behavior – especially the particular problems of leading and managing a large, bureaucratic, not-for-profit organization and the very-special situation of combat leadership.
These are enduring tasks. War college curriculum should be organized and developed to advance an officer’s knowledge of multiple disciplines as they apply to accomplishing these tasks. With a stable set of organizing principles, the college has a learning curve for faculty development and curriculum development, a standard for measuring performance, and a template for recruiting faculty. For War Colleges, this method of organizing a curriculum is more powerful than the traditional approach of organizing by academic disciplines – for the simple reason that it addresses the relevancy issue directly.
Depth versus breadth in the faculty.
Suppose the topic of the day is the use of military force in a Humanitarian Relief Operation (HUMRO). The professor obviously has to cause the students to appreciate the regional history (cultural divides along religious or tribal lines, historical colonial issues with national borders, and resource problems such as oil and water). It may be necessary for the professor to lead a discussion on the nature of the immediate problem (civil war or spillover from a neighboring conflict), and the concept of military operations (evacuation, peacekeeping, peacemaking, or peace enforcement). After that, the professor probably needs to be able to delve into the domestic influence on foreign policy, obligations under treaties, and international law. One cannot appreciate HUMRO without exploring each of these perspectives, and it is the professor’s responsibility to bring the appropriate perspectives to bear on the problems at hand.
When students offer their views in seminar, the professor needs to alternatively reinforce these views by surrounding them with the appropriate theory, then expand the students’ understandings by providing alternative theories – theories that lead to different, but still useful, conclusions. Professors have to have depth in their fields, breath across many other fields, patience and mental agility and the intellectual courage to engage in unfamiliar academic territory.
The relationship between the faculty and the curriculum. The faculty should own the curriculum – they should develop it, teach it, and be held accountable for it. Curriculum development is critically important -- a talented classroom instructor will struggle if the curriculum is weak, but a weak classroom instructor can be effective if the curriculum is strong.
Faculty ownership is important.  The core curriculum is presented in seminars, simultaneously across the student population, by faculty teams. Students, and faculty, are competitive. Competition is generally productive. However, competition can become dysfunctional when a professor deviates from the script – sometimes offering the students something along the lines of: “I didn’t develop this curriculum, and it would have been much better if I had….so…..let’s not do the planned lesson and we’ll do this other thing instead….” Students in the deviant seminar feel good, and brag; students in conforming seminars feel bad, and revolt. This easily spins out of control to intra-faculty warfare and wholesale abandonment of the curriculum. Professors need to own the curriculum, and function as a team – and that means owning, and teaching, what is on the plate.
The absolute worst situation I have ever seen is where the curriculum development, curriculum execution, and classroom administration duties were divided. Curriculum development was assigned to a group of ex-teachers (called, of all things, “curriculators”), students were assigned the task of teaching (student-led seminars), and such items as room configuration, supplies, and so forth were left to the faculty who served as “facilitators.” When things went wrong, the finger pointing started. Facilitators blamed the students for not being better teachers, students blamed curriculators for the poorly designed curriculum, and the curriculators blamed the facilitators for not taking charge. Worse yet, nobody owned anything so there was no pride when things went well – as a consequence, nothing could be fixed. It was a disaster.
In the end, the faculty must own the curriculum. The same faculty that develops the curriculum needs to execute it in the classroom. Faculty members need to stand in front of the classroom and say: “This is a curriculum I designed.” They need to take full credit, or blame, for the outcome, and they need to be held accountable, and rewarded, for performance.
The relationship between curriculum development, research and publication. Traditional academic institutions expect professors to do research and publish in their academic specialty. War Colleges are anchored by tailored, specialized, faculty-developed curriculum. Curriculum development takes time and energy, as does broadening one’s base of expertise in order to teach such a curriculum. There is not enough time to effectively broaden, deepen, develop curriculum and teach. Priorities have to be set. Teaching and curriculum development have to come first. Traditional expectations for research and publication have to be set aside in favor of curriculum development responsibilities – curriculum development needs to be encouraged and rewarded.
Colleges and universities have both teaching and research missions. The War Colleges are no exception; the issue is balance. War Colleges are graduate schools within the military profession – more akin to what you would see in graduate schools of business or law than what you would find in the graduate division of a traditional university. War Colleges are primarily teaching institutions. While War Colleges do have a research mission, that mission is properly concentrated on areas relevant to the military profession.
This is not to say that traditional academic research is unimportant. Quite the contrary, academic research is important, but more so if that research leads to curriculum. Publishing is important, especially if the materials are used in the curriculum. Research and publication that are not relevant to the curriculum can certainly be encouraged and even be applauded, but if it is to be rewarded, the reward should be validated, first, by an appropriate recognition from the relevant professional society.
Over the years I have heard my colleagues try and make the point that once a person leaves traditional academia and enters the War Colleges, there is no going back. Their arguments are usually a blend of an attack on “Liberal Academia” with concerns that a concentration of curriculum development in lieu of research and publication in their professional discipline makes them non-competitive in the university environment.  Whether real or imagined, these perceptions exist and present problems for personnel management in the War Colleges.
If the opportunity to do research and publication in
traditional disciplines is not one of the reward mechanisms, then others have
to be created. Among these are financial rewards (higher salaries than
traditional academia), the opportunity to work with talented and motivated
students, the opportunity to participate in real world policy formulation
(through studies and special committees/commissions), and access to the
professional military community (including access to classified information).
If the opportunity to return to traditional academia is indeed reduced by
joining the faculty of a
The War Colleges are well served by policies that allow
flexibility for their faculties. It should be normal practice for faculty
members to serve at a
Measuring success. If you do a survey of graduates several years out, and you are doing your job in aggressively revising the curriculum, then you are asking your alumni questions about a curriculum that no longer exists. If, instead, you survey the current students, some say the results are little more than reading a fun-meter. What you really need is a couple of rules of thumb and a few quantifiable, near-real-time measures. 
The rules of thumb are fairly straightforward. First, in order to keep the curriculum current, it is obvious that the curriculum must change on a regular basis. If the curriculum is being updated at a rate of approximately 25% per year, you are probably on track. If it’s less than that, you may be falling behind; if it’s more than that, you are probably chasing the whim of the day and/or your organizing principles are wrong. Second, your graduates ought to be staying in touch with your faculty with questions or to otherwise ask for assistance. If that’s not happening, your graduates must not consider your faculty to be relevant; if it is happening, it’s an avenue for faculty members to stay current. Finally, other organizations ought to be inviting, and funding, your faculty to participate in projects. If it’s happening, it’s a sign you are highly regarded and your advice is worth paying for; if it’s not happening, you have been disengaged. These are only three rules of thumb, but they take the pulse of the organization.
At the executive level, I believe there are three
quantifiable measures that need to be taken as part of institutional assessment
– the first two are direct indicators, the third is a leading indicator of
change. The two direct indicators are Relevance of the Curriculum, and Quality
of Instruction. If your current
students perceive that the curriculum is relevant and that a high quality
faculty is delivering it, chances are very good that things are on track. The
idea of using student opinions as a means for determining institutional
effectiveness is controversial – sometimes compared to allowing the inmates to
grade the warden. But these are not your usual students, and the perceptions of
these students will be carried back to the parent organization immediately.
This perception, in turn, will fuel your reputation and, over time, have an
influence on who attends your school and who does not. Generals and Admirals
who had a good experience when they attended a
The third quantitative measure is Instructor Feedback (IF). Students need feedback; professors sometimes get sloppy with feedback. My experience is that slacking off in feedback is the leading indicator that a professor has prevailing interests outside the arena of teaching or curriculum development. Perhaps those interests are rooted in personal problems, or perhaps the professor has burned out. There may be any number of other reasons – but dropping off in student evaluations of Instructor Feedback raises a flag in my book. In response, the War College leadership needs to probe a bit beyond the two other quantitative measures to find out what is going on, make an intervention if need be, and get the show back on the right road. Of note, my experience is also that a professor who had had difficulty, but is now working to get on track, will show improvement first in the area of Instructor Feedback – so IF is both a leading and a lagging indicator of change. 
Overall, the organizational leadership dilemma is trying to create an effective, efficient management-control system while at the same time maintaining a creative, innovative mission-oriented faculty. In the Management Sciences, this is what Peter Drucker has called the Loose-Tight Organization -- professors have a lot of authority to do what they believe is right (loose control), but they have to meet demanding performance standards (tight). Once set, these standards have to be enforced – hiring, firing, promoting and the rest of the reward/incentive system needs to be tied unashamedly to the management control system.
If, over time, students are convinced that a professor is not high quality, then just maybe the professor is not high quality! If, over time, a high quality professor cannot convince the students that the curriculum is relevant, then perhaps the curriculum is not relevant. If you are in a leadership position, you need to be prepared to act on these conclusions – you owe that to the institution and to your students. 
Concluding thoughts and summations.
When a democratic society sanctions members to use deadly
force in the name of that society it is serious business. Thucydides, in his History
of the Peloponnesian Wars, sets out a fundamental question with respect to
democracies and their armed forces. Thucydides asks how a democratic state (
Character building in the officer corps begins with the accession process – the military must, of necessity, screen its officer applicants on the basis of their character and integrity. Overlaid on these strengths, the armed forces apply a technical education, appropriate to their military specialty, and a liberal education, appropriate to strengthening their character. The introductory phrase to the Code of a Naval Officer, attributed to John Paul Jones, sums it up nicely: It is by no means enough that an officer of the Navy be a capable mariner. He must be that, of course, but also a great deal more. He should be as well a gentleman of liberal education….” It should not be surprising to find that the early stages of an officer’s technical education and character development parallel that of traditional universities.
In the first 10 or so years (often called the Company Grade ranks), an officer’s technical knowledge within a warfare specialty is paramount to the officer’s duties. As an officer advances into what is called the Field Grade ranks (the 12-18 year period of an officer’s career), leadership/supervisor responsibilities supplant more task-oriented duties; personal and detailed technical knowledge atrophies, as does its importance. As an officer advances into the senior officer ranks (20 years and beyond), responsibilities increase, the basis of leadership shifts from technical expertise to those of organizational principles, ethics, and standards, and the style of leadership shifts from direct to indirect.
In this maturation process, the officer is gradually becoming more of leader than a manager, and is increasing charged with “doing the right thing” over simply “doing things right.” By the time an officer is entering the Senior Officer ranks, “character” – the foundation upon which an officer decides how to do the right thing, at the right time, and for the right reasons -- may be the single most important determinant of success or failure for the individual leader or of the organization. The War Colleges provide that final tuning of an officer’s character before they reach the highest ranks.
In sum, the
Let me say in conclusion, that while I offer that the War
Colleges are inherently different from traditional academic institutions they
should not be seen as counter-cultures to traditional academic institutions.
Officers in the armed forces are products of traditional academia; professors
at the War Colleges are drawn from traditional academia. An officer’s character
is cast in their youth, forged in their college years, then reinforced, and
tempered in their military service; the