FOR NEARLY 200 years, cadets at the United States Military Academy have been guided by the “Thayer System,” a rigid structure of unyielding regulation, austere discipline, fierce loyalty, and strong emphasis on math, science, and engineering. The method is calculated to produce Army officers of the highest caliber. And the system has worked. West Point graduates constitute some of the most celebrated, highly decorated officers in American history. No doubt if you traveled further back in time, West Pointers would rank amongst some of the finest combat leaders in the history of warfare.
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However, one of the cornerstones of Slyvanus Thayer’s system, his dated academic infrastructure, no longer meets the needs of the mission. The same can be said for nearly identical curriculums at Annapolis and Colorado Springs.
West Point and all of the service academies promote math and engineering above all other disciplines. Thayer wanted math savvy artillery officers. The Navy sought officers with a firm grasp of engineering to keep their ships running and navigate the seas under the harshest of combat conditions. And the Air Force desired officers capable of operating the service’s cutting-edge technology. It’s the perfect academic infrastructure for a young cadet, if we expect him to fight the Cold War.
Unfortunately, we are fighting a new war. Tomorrow’s war. This is a war where we fight an enemy who understands that the battlefield lies in the human heart, not in the skies or on the seas. And while the liberal arts curriculum is precisely the school of thought needed to effectively prepare our cadets to fight in the 21st century, not one of the service academies offers a Bachelor of Arts degree.
An Army platoon leader would be better equipped to administer to tribes in Anbar province if he had a degree in International Affairs and a minor in Arabic. A Marine infantry Lieutenant might be more effective unifying warlords in Afghanistan if he spent his four years at Annapolis studying the history of central Asia. U.S. Special Forces have been deployed to over 180 different countries since 9/11, and, to be sure, the military offers them the education needed to meet that goal. But in all that training an academy cadet will only get as much foreign study as he can squeeze into his schedule between orbital mechanics and advanced calculus.
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