Academic Studies Rank High at West Point (Hudson Valley 8/95)

It’s no longer enough to be an officer and a gentleman. Now, the U.S. Military Academy trains its cadets to be creative thinkers, too.

“Do you have one of those for each of us?” The major asked me, in a voice loud enough for the 16 uniformed cadets seated with me in the small, spotless classroom in Thayer Hall to hear. The stern-looking, bespectacled history teacher was referring to the remainder of the strawberry pop-tart that I had grabbed in the Weapons Room (the cozy little snack bar in nearby Grant Hall) and had unwisely brought into class, and that was now lying before me, in plain sight.

The class, on this Tuesday afternoon, was engaged in an animated discussion on early 20th-century American cultural history, with specific reference to the revolution in moral attitudes that occurred during the Roaring ’20s. I blushed and tossed the offending object into the garbage, mentally chiding myself for this gross breach of military etiquette. I must have forgotten where I was — the United States Military Academy at West Point.

“Sorry, sir,” I responded. I suspect that Sylvanus Thayer, superintendent of the Academy from 1817 to 1833, and the man known as the “Father of West Point,” was turning over in his grave — which happens to be located on the edge of the USMA’s sprawling garrison and campus, along with the graves of 5,000 other departed West Pointers. So too, probably, was my own dear departed father, as Army lieutenant colonel and Officer Candidate School graduate who was fond of bringing our family to the Point for fall excursions during the halcyon pre-Vietnam days, and once dreamed of sending me, his eldest son, here, before my decidedly nonregimented nature evinced itself. The major smiled slightly and continued with his lesson, as I shrank into my scat.

The USMA is, above all, the Army’s leadership laboratory. And leaders-in-the-making are expected to adhere to rules and a disciplined military lifestyle. They are expected to leap out of bed at the sound of reveille at 6 in the morning. They are to be back under the covers, lights out, by midnight, no exceptions. In between those hours they have to do a lot of marching and saluting — as well as a considerable amount of studying, including an average of six hours per day of classroom time and two and a half to three and a half hours of individual study.

Cadets must assume rigid, perfect posture upon command. During meals, plebes are required to serve upperclassmen, as well as sit straight with feet on the floor and backs one fist’s distance from their chairs. Similarly, plebes must halt in mid-bite if and when they are addressed by their superior cadets, and — as I saw several do when I took lunch with the Corps in the armory-like dining room of Washington Hall — look the speaker in the eye and respond satisfactorily, or else face punishment.

In addition, the hapless freshmen must regurgitate all tenets of that idiotic canon known as “Plebe Knowledge.” Typical Mickey Mouse question: “How many lights in Cullum Hall?” Answer: “340 lights, sir!”

Another example: “How is the cow?” Appropriate response: “Sir, she walks, she talks, she’s full of chalk, lacteal fluid extracted from the female of the bovine species is highly prolific to the nth degree.” This bizarre answer derives from a ritual of the old West Point mess hall, where the plebe water corporal used to be quizzed about how much milk remained in the pitcher.

If challenged, all cadets are still expected to tell “the truth,” as best they know it, about anything, on penalty of “being found,” which means being found deficient and expelled. They might be found, too, if they knowingly cheat, steal, or tolerate any other cadet who does, as mandated by the honor code put in place by Thayer and codified by former superintendent Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Cadets must also respond to questions in complete sentences, a dictum that this reporter and occasional instructor of rhetoric found refreshing, especially after having spent a good deal of time wading through the morass of contemporary student-speak at neighboring civilian campuses previously surveyed for this publication. Cadets’ speech, like their well-pressed uniforms, is crisp and to the point. I liked that.

But if the English language is still held in high esteem at West Point, so are most of the myriad rules contained in the “Plebe Bible.” Including the stricture against eating in class–For a moment, as I sat there on that Tuesday afternoon at Thayer Hall, recoiling from the major’s stern reprimand, I envisioned the various punishments that he could inflict. Would I be ordered to “walk the area” — to pace back and forth at some specified spot with a rifle for up to five hours at a time? Fortunately, no. I was, after all, a civilian. My mission: to assay and reconnoiter West Point’s academic program, not play at being a soldier.

Dress grays and parades — that’s about all that GAP, or the Great American Public, as the civilian world is called at West Point, knew of this military citadel in Orange County. But how strong is West Point as a shaper of minds? How much chalk is there in this old cow of an Academy? Is it still the most rigid engineering school that I had read about in military biographies? Has the curriculum broadened to square with modern reality? To what degree are the humanities a part of the West Point course of study? These are some of the questions I sought to answer as I “ascended” to the Point.

I discovered, among other things, an institution that, despite the fluctuating prestige of a military career, continues to be one of the most selective academic institutions in the country. Last year, the Academy admitted fewer than 9 percent of those who applied. By this standard, West Point is competitive with Stanford, Harvard, Yale and other elite colleges and universities, although it is somewhat less so in terms of SAT scores: The average total SAT score of entering cadets last year was 1200, about 50 points fewer than the average score of matriculants at the Ivy League schools and their peers.

I discovered a school that is competitive at its outtake end as well as at intake, ranking fifth last year among the nation’s colleges and universities in total number of graduates who earned Rhodes, Marshall or Hertz Foundation scholarships.

I discovered an Academy with an extensive support system that provides cadets with virtually unlimited tutoring with fellow cadets, who are known as “academic sergeants,” and instructors.

I discovered a place that was very much in tune with the contemporary world — a place where cadets are actually required to read The New York Times.

Thus, in one class on American foreign policy that I audited, the cadets were engaged in a lively discussion about one of the lead stories in that day’s paper about an overly dedicated Army captain who had taken it upon himself to visit Haiti’s prison system in search of human rights violations; the officer had been reprimanded. The instructor, another major, agreed with the disciplinary action. “The dangerous thing was that he used the power of his uniform to do that,” the major expostulated, as most of his straight-backed interlocutors nodded. The class then shifted into a well-informed discussion of the responsibilities of the United States vis-á-vis the Third World. “Why should we care about the Third World?” the major asked. A gray-sleeved arm shot up. “Because it contains 80 percent of the world’s population, sir!”

Perhaps most refreshing, I also discovered an institution with a rich student life and good-natured, good-humored young men and women (females have been attending West Point since July 1976) who are just seen as fond of a good prank as much as the next college-aged person. Did you know, for example, that West Point has more than 100 student clubs, including its very own hip cadet radio station, WKDT? Your inquiring reporter spent some time hanging out in the outrageously decorated main headquarters of that quirky outpost, shooting the breeze with the cadets who man the station during their off hours and imbibing the truly collegial atmosphere that exists there. Indeed, I daresay I actually had fun at West Point.

I also found an institution which, though justifiably proud of its history and recent progress in many areas, was in a somewhat defensive mode as a result of a series of newspaper and magazine articles questioning West Point’s usefulness in the post-Cold War world. One of these articles compared cadets to machines and service academies to factories that were no longer cost-effective. And West Point was still smarting from the pain of some Congressionally mandated downsizing in 1990, including a decrease in the total student body from 4,400 to 4,000.

But West Point has been in this position before. In fact, sentiments for shutting down the Academy ran high during the first two decades of its existence. Founded in March 1802 by Thomas Jefferson as a means for providing the Army with trained engineers and officers, few standards, academic or otherwise, were enforced. There were no entrance exams, no fixed school terms and no age requirement. One contemporary called West Point a “puny, rickety child.”

The Academy’s structure as we know it began to take shape in July 1817 with the return of Superintendent Thayer, who had been a member of one of the first graduating classes. Over the next 16 years, this brilliant, demanding educator-engineer transformed West Point into an institution admired and emulated throughout the world. Col. Thayer standardized the Academy’s school year, introduced small classes, ordered daily recitation and weekly ratings in academics and conduct, and established firm graduation requirements. To this day there are no large lecture classes and few classes with more than 15 cadets at West Point. Recitation and weekly ratings in academics and conduct are still part of the curriculum.

The core of Thayer’s curriculum, in line with the Academy’s basic mission, consisted of engineering and the sciences. But officers, in the superintendent’s enlightened view, also had to be gentlemen. Therefore cadets were also enjoined to study philosophy, ethics, French and drawing. And they had to know how to dance: Third and fourth-year cadets were required to take classes in ballroom dancing. (This polite art is still taught to cadets today by the cadet Hostess office — on an optional basis, of course.)

Under Thayer’s enlightened stewardship, West Point became the nation’s preeminent engineering school before the Civil War. It served as a model for other technically oriented schools, including Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, Rensselaer County. One of the country’s foremost educators, Horace Mann, commented in 1849 that he had “rarely if ever seen anything that equaled the excellence of the teaching or the proficiency of the taught” at West Point. Dennis H. Mahan (class of 1824), an Academy professor for more than four decades, was perhaps the best-known engineering instructor in the nation. His pupils who served in the Army Corps of Engineers played a major role in the building and shaping of the American West.

Alas, the academic excellence exemplified by Mahan and his demanding peers on the faculty dissipated after the Civil War, while an increasing emphasis was placed on discipline and spit-and-polish aspects of military life. Hazing in its most extreme forms came to the Point. Considered as a school, the Academy became decidedly less Cartesian and more Bismarckian in spirit.

Meanwhile, reviewing the Corps of Cadets became de rigueur for touring monarchs and their kin. Not surprisingly, one of those who was impressed with the Academy was Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, who reviewed the cadets during his visit to the United States in 1909. “A fine body of promising young gentlemen,” the German ruler inscribed on a photo of the long gray line. “A sight delightful to a soldier’s heart!” Others, like the president emeritus of Harvard, Charles Eliot, were less impressed. In 1920, Eliot denounced the Point as embodying the most hidebound aspects of Victorian higher education.

The greatest reformer at the Academy during the essentially static decades from the end of the Civil War through the end of World War II was World War I (and future World War II) hero Douglas MacArthur of the class of 1903. Like Thayer, MacArthur returned to West Point as superintendent and instituted numerous changes during his tour of duty, which lasted from 1919 to 1922. A classmate of the general once said that “If Sylvanus Thayer was the Father of the Military Academy, then Douglas Mac Arthur was its Savior.” MacArthur reinstated pre-World War I academic standards and established intramural athletic programs. He also induced entrenched faculty members to teach at various civilian schools.

Recognizing the need for 20th-century officers to perform competently at the conference table as well as on the battlefield, MacArthur tried without success to convince West Point’s academic board to include psychology, sociology and political science into the curriculum. Even though he was unsuccessful in this respect, MacArthur is widely credited with planting the seed for subsequent academic reform at the Academy. In the meantime, however, the primitive, chalk-and-blackboard curriculum, which was still devoted largely to mathematics and engineering, remained entrenched. The idea of electives — that freedom of choice could actually enhance intellectual development — was anathema. Anyway, who said that the Army needed intellectuals? The Army needed engineers — and leaders.

The outstanding record of West Point graduates in both world wars made the Academy even more resistant to change. If it was good enough for Pershing and Patton, it was good enough for the postwar cadet too. A cheating scandal in 1951 did little to shake the institution’s complacency. A member of the academic board, quoted in Rick Atkinson’s acclaimed “The Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point’s Class of 1966,” nicely summed up West Point’s prevailing smug attitude about itself when, in response to a request for electives, he declared that each cadet “has exercised a complete freedom of choice in his decision to come to West Point at all — he chose the prescribed curriculum.”

Lt. Gen. David R. Palmer, a member of the class of 1956, recalls that “it didn’t matter whether you had entered with two years of college behind you or came out of high school. Everyone took the same curriculum. The only choice you had was in the foreign language you registered for. I wanted French, but they gave me Russian anyway. I didn’t mind. That was the attitude; you took what you got — just like the chow that was served at meals.” Later, as superintendent of the Academy from 1986 to 1991, Palmer pushed forward the most sweeping changes ever in its curriculum and educational philosophy.

The momentum for change got started in 1960, when Brig. Gen. Garrison H. Davidson (class of 1927), then serving as superintendent, convinced the academic board to allow seniors two electives. Davidson was motivated by the belief that cadets in the Cold War era needed a broader education than just math and engineering. He also urged professors to publish and required permanent faculty members to obtain doctorates.

Two events during the 1970s inspired more widespread change in West Point’s system of officer education. One was the Army’s demoralizing and disturbing defeat in Vietnam. Although most West Point graduates acquitted themselves well on the battlefield of Southeast Asia, some found themselves at loggerheads with the enlisted men they led. In several extreme cases, officers were “fragged” — or killed or wounded by fragmentation grenades — by their own disaffected soldiers. Meanwhile, the Academy-trained generals in charge of running the war — including Gen. William C. Westmoreland (class of 1936), a former Academy superintendent who was the American commander in Vietnam from 1967 to 1973 — seemed intellectually unable to come to grips with the unique nature of the conflict. Other USMA alumni deported themselves less than honorably in the killing fields. In 1970, the Academy commandant, Maj. Gen. Samuel W. Koster, left West Point after he was charged with the misconduct in his role as commander of the division involved in the My Lai massacre. The Academy’s credo of “Duty, Honor, Country” might still have been valid — although some questioned even that — but certainly something was wrong about the way it was being instilled and carried out.

Then, in 1976, when the wounds left by Vietnam were starting to heal, the Point was rocked by the worst cheating scandal in its history. Some 150 cadets were found guilty of exchanging answers to an engineering exam and were suspended for a year. A commission of high-ranking officers and former officers, called the Borman Commission (named for Academy graduate and former astronaut Frank Borman), took a hard look at West Point’s honor system and found that it was tainted by corruption.

A subsequent, deeper study of West Point conducted by the Department of the Army found it wanting in other respects. The resuming 1977 report suggested more courses in the humanities to supplement the heavy emphasis on mathematics and engineering. A number of changes ensued in the next few years, including the introduction of limited academic majors in 1982, which were designated to bring West Point more in line with its civilian counterparts.

West Point, like the military as a while, enjoyed something of a resurgence during the 1980s. With President Ronald Reagan personifying the New Patriotism, applications to the Academy soared to an all-time high, reaching a peak of 14,500 in 1985. That year also saw the arrival of Palmer as superintendent. Palmer viewed this relatively quiet period as a good time to institute needed changes, especially in academic program. He would make West Point a university for the first time.

To achieve this, a “whole person” conceptual officer development was instituted, instituting the academic, military and athletic components of Academy training into one closely monitored experience. In the past, Palmer found, the academic, military and sports instructors had competed with each other for cadets’ time, with academics often taking a back seat. In the new, more academic-minded West Point, all three staffs were encouraged to work together on the “whole cadet.” Tactical officers assigned to each company of cadets, who had been responsible for the cadets’ military training and discipline were now held accountable for all aspects of training.

Palmer also felt that cadets were suffering from information overload, so he ordered the course load cut back and increased the number of hours for study hall. He also placed new emphasis on the humanities. “Leaders have to lead human beings,” says Palmer, who is now president of Walden University in Minnesota. “They need to be exposed to the social sciences, history, philosophy.” On keeping with this belief, a new course track in the humanities and public affairs was added to the existing one in engineering and math. Second-year cadets now had to study philosophy, third-year cadets had to take international relations, and fourth-year cadets found themselves soaking up constitutional law. Moreover, an elective program was added tin the third and fourth years, allowing true majors and depth of study in 30 different subjects.

The breadth and success of palmer’s “quiet revolution” was observed by an evaluation team from the Commission of Higher Education of the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools that visited the academy in 1989. The subsequent report stated that West Point deserved “to be commended for its very effective effort to offer a curriculum which is conductive to both progressive and integrated learning, to the acquisition of historical mindedness in both global and national perspectives, to increasing in-depth study, and to threads of connectedness.”

In recent years, under the leadership of Palmer’s successor, Lt. Gen. Howard D. Graves (class of 1961), who is the Academy’s 54th superintendent, West Point has continued to gain attention both nationally and regionally for various aspects of its curriculum and program, particularly the high-tech Performance Enhancement Center, which serves students’ academic needs with its innovative Reading Efficiency and Student Success courses. In one such class I attended, cadets, with the aid of computers, learned to nearly double their reading speed. These courses also focus on relaxation, stress and arousal control, time management, goal setting and positive thinking. In 1994, West Point implemented an academic assessment system, which periodically evaluates the curriculums, goals and objectives of each academic major and field of study.

“This is a university,” says Lt. Col. Brad Scott (class of 1976), director of the Performance Enhancement Center. “Perhaps that wasn’t the case 20 years ago, when I entered. But the whole culture for learning has changed here. The Army never wanted officers who were independent thinkers — but now, in the post-Cold War world, it does. It needs them. We want officers who are creative and critical thinkers, and I believe that the Academy’s curriculum, staff and philosophy reflect that.”

While the curriculum’s greatest emphasis remains on mathematics, science and engineering, in keeping with the Academy’s perennial mission to supply the Army with trained engineers and technically sophisticated leaders, the growing presence of the humanities seems to have changed both the content and the character of the academic experience offered at the Point. “I really like the individual attention you get here,” declares George Walter, senior from South Carolina. “There really is a nurturing process here. Instructors always have a lot of time for their students. If you want to pass a course, you will.” Nurturing — can you imagine such a word being used at the old West Point?

A systems-engineering major, Walter chose to come to West Point over Georgia Tech, and he’s glad he did. “I knew some students at Georgia Tech, and they are amazed when I tell them what I am learning here.” In his engineering studies, Walter is achieving in four years what would normally take five at a civilian school. He also had praise for his humanities courses. “It sounds like a cliché, but I really believe that I am getting a well-rounded education here,” the crew-cut cadet declares, “much more than I would at a ‘normal’ civilian college.”

The academy seems to be living up to its marketing image. The USMA catalogue warns prospective cadets that West Point “will be tough” and that they will be “challenged to pursue an honorable lifestyle manifest in the ‘spirit’ of the honor code.” And the Academy praises itself for having “one of the most highly respected, quality education programs in the nation.” Nevertheless, the catalogue also emphasizes the academy’s 110 extracurricular activities and 24 intercollegiate sports. Thanks to such marketing efforts and an aggressive admissions staff, the word about the new, improved West Point is getting out to the general applicant pool. A poll of the class of 1998 conducted by the Academy confirmed that for most cadets West Point’s academic offerings figured largely in their decision to attend. “I have to admit, the students who are coming here are probably cut above those who came in when I entered,” says Lt. Col. Eugene K. Ressler (class of 1978), an associate professor in the department of electrical engineering and computer science. “They’re brighter. They’re more open-minded. And they can think on their feet.”

I came away from my visit to West Point agreeing with William Safire — not someone’s whose opinions I generally second. In a New York Times column published in 1976, when West Point was still reeling from the cheating scandal, Safire tackled the subject of the Academy’s value to American taxpayers, who cough up a cool quarter of a million dollars for each cadet’s four-year education. “What does the taxpayer get for this?” Safire asked. “He gets a young man who is proud to be held to higher standards than other men of his age. Such a man is more likely than most to lead his fellow Americans — in a life-and-death situation — with honor.”

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