Fixing the Service Academies

Op-For‘s John Noonan argues in today’s Weekly Standard that it’s time to rethink the curriculum at West Point and the other service academies.

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.

As a political science/international relations PhD whose tenure at West Point was short circuited after three semesters of the math and engineering heavy curriculum, I’m certainly sympathetic to Noonan’s point of view. It’s hardly clear that the ability to handle differential equations is an essential skill for a combat commander; indeed most ROTC grads come from other backgrounds. Then again, there’s little reason to think overly technocratic officers are the reason for our failures at counterinsurgency. After all, men like David Petraeus, H.R. McMaster, and John Nagl managed to become experts at COIN despite the handicap of being honor graduates of the Military Academy.

Regardless, I would argue that the over-emphasis on advanced mathematics and engineering courses is outmoded. West Point, at least, has recognized this and been moving in the right direction for roughly a quarter century. They were offering social science concentrations as early as 1984 and began allowing cadets to declare majors, including in the social sciences, more than fifteen years ago. They also require courses in international relations and two years of a foreign language.

Here’s the basic curriculum as it stands now:

USMA Academic Program Requirements

In addition to the military science and physical education courses, the core is roughly balanced, with 16 required humanities courses and 15 in mathematics/science/engineering. With the exception of the three engineering courses, it’s not radically more numbers oriented than the typical bachelor of science degree at a civilian university. The eight military science courses, too, almost surely have a strong COIN component at this stage.

I wouldn’t mind seeing more history instruction and perhaps a mandatory year of Arabic language familiarization. Whether those would have made a substantial difference in Iraq, however, is doubtful.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Triumph says:

    Military Science

    I didn’t realize that the military still thinks of its vocation as “scientific”–I would have thought McNamara and his crew would have discredited that idea decades ago. What do they teach in these courses?


    This sounds like a fluff topic–cultural studies for soldiers.

    Two courses in foreign language and one in ethics seem inadequate.

  2. … and perhaps a mandatory year of Arabic language familiarization.

    Presumably, not everyone will serve in the Middle East. It can be problematic to overfocus on one enemy or area of concern, as we did with the Soviet Union for quite some time. Perhaps French or Spanish might be more useful for some percentage of officers as a language more readily encountered internationally. Or Chinese.

  3. James Joyner says:

    I didn’t realize that the military still thinks of its vocation as “scientific”–I would have thought McNamara and his crew would have discredited that idea decades ago. What do they teach in these courses?

    A variety of topics, although mostly historical case studies, sand table exercises, and the like. I agree that “Art of War” would be a more fitting title but they call ROTC departments “Military Science,” too.

    Leadership: This sounds like a fluff topic–cultural studies for soldiers.

    Not at all. There is both theoretical knowledge and practical experience/interaction with mentor officers in these courses. It’s the sine qua non of the military academies.

    Two courses in foreign language and one in ethics seem inadequate.

    I would agree on the foreign language. OTOH, if one spends three years studying Spanish and then lands in Iraq, I’m not sure how much has been gained.

    Ethics is a critical component of the philosophy course (Michael Walzer was required reading in my day, at least) and the fluffy Leadership courses.

  4. oceanguy says:

    This article sounds like a survey I returned to the Naval Academy in the early 80’s.

    Foreign Language should have always been required of Midshipmen, and over-emphasis of differential equations and thermodynamics has limited the diversity of graduates for at least the last 35 years… I graduated 28 years ago.

    Language, World History and Geography should be at the core of each Academy’s curriculum. Today one can graduate with no language no geography and only a general 100 level history… For the Navy that served Rickover’s Nuclear Power program very well, but the general officer corps has suffered.

    It’s way beyond time for the curricula to be overhauled!

  5. yetanotherjohn says:

    This looks like a remarkably balanced curriculum. Remember, there are 10-14 additional classes to get additional language, history, etc.

    I think the language issue is best addressed by making a variety of languages available and steering by class size (e.g. One class in German, one in French, maybe two or three each in Spanish, Chinese and Arabic). Four history classes is a lot more than most science degrees would require, but appropriate.

    I guess the opinion survey I would want is graduates from butter bar to four star cross indexed with their tours in Iraq/Afghanistan, elsewhere and there successes. It would probably make sense to get the survey from those who have left the military also (to make sure the reason for leaving wasn’t correctable in the curriculum).

  6. Triumph says:

    There is both theoretical knowledge and practical experience/interaction with mentor officers in these courses. It’s the sine qua non of the military academies.

    Interesting about the “Leadership,” thing, James.

    Whenever I hear the term, my mind immediately goes to Business School & self-help mumbo-jumbo.

    On the language front, I wonder if it is even possible for service academy students to do some type of study abroad? It could help in the language training, history, and social science departments. Recipricol programs with service-academy equivalents in NATO countries–or even non-enemies like Russia, Japan, China, and Brasil–would be helpful for building an understanding of cultural difference as well as foging personal ties between would-be leaders in important countries militaries.

  7. Steve Plunk says:

    What is the percentage of officers serving do not come from West Point but from ROTC programs? Could these officers be the ones with a more liberal education who could fill those needs? Also, are the West Point grads treated that much different than the ROTC officers?

  8. just me says:

    I think it would actually make sense to require a couple of years of language in a few key language group areas-Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish (given the state of Latin America) all make sense in the current climate.

    But it is hard to predict the future, when todays Colonels and Generals were at the service Academies the USSR was the big bad wolf, and the Middle East while a “hot” zone was hardly the focus of broad military concerns.

    It also only makes sense to offer non engineering oriented course work, and it actually makes sense to allow for specific majors.

  9. BBI Bill says:

    I am not sure about all of the service academies, but I believe that West Point has a healthy program that allows cadets to do short academic internships in the summer that can encompass a number of areas (not just military or science/engineering) and allow enrichment. In addition, cadets have the opportunity to leave for a semester and attend other service academies in the US and abroad, as well as (I believe) other institutions abroad. I know of at least one cadet who was a French major and who spent a semester in France.

  10. USMA Recruiter says:

    I believe a visit to the West Point website at (check out the academic offerings) will satisfy everyone that this is certainly a top-tier college that prepares its graduates to assume real leadership in the affairs of our nation, in and out of uniform. Note the consistent numbers of Rhodes, Marshall, Truman and other prestigious scholars turned out year after year. Note as well the wide variety of extracurricular activities, such as the Model Arabic club, Model UN, etc., that are offered (and how well they do against their civilian college competitors). I believe COL Thayer would be rightly proud of what his school has become. America should be be prouder of these young men and women as well.