A few years ago, my daughter got me the book Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point. The amazon.com blurb describes it as “a thrilling portrait of a unique institution and those who make up its ranks,” which is actually not too wildly overstated– at least, it’s a very good book. In classic New Journalism style, the author rents a house near the West Point campus and follows a group of cadets (a small group, but they seem representative) through their whole time there. Also in classic style, the author starts out a hardened wise-guy/big city cynic, and ends up really, really liking the young people he meets. He’s impressed at how demanding the education is, how many challenges the cadets overome, and how fundamentally decent they are to one another. He’s also impressed at how they grow up in the course of their time there.
Now, we’re a pretty unmilitary family, and the only person I know who’s gone to a service academy is my ex-brother-in-law, who got kicked out after one semester at the Merchant Marine Academy. But like most everyone else, we’re suckers for young-people-growing-up-and-meeting-challenges narratives and for stories about the romantic, “unique institutions” that make the growing-up happen– whether it’s Rugby School, LA’s Garfield High School, or Hogwarts. West Point fits right into the series, making Absolutely a seriously feel-good read.
At least until you start thinking about the details of West Point education, and then you start to realize something weird: these young people barely have time for the washroom, let alone for any thinking about whatever it is they’re learning. Basically, they’re up before dawn (6 am), then running non-stop from class to class, activity to activity until bedtime. There are two or three hours of free time in the course of the day, but mostly that gets used up on sports, room cleaning, and other kinds of prep work. Maybe some of these kids find time in there for getting excited about a weird novel or writing project, or talking about ideas– but they’re much more likely to use their few spare minutes on pure escapism. Anyway, with “almost every facet of life being graded” (in the words of a recent cadet), there’s not much payoff in unstructured activity.
I assume the concept is, when West Point graduates are out fighting our enemies, they’re not going to have time for random reflection or enriching reading. They’ll have to think and decide fast, without the benefit of a good night’s sleep or a research library, and the West Point atmosphere of constant busy-ness is supposed to prepare them for that. Of course they’ll also have to be physically fit, and West Point’s sports requirement (everybody has to play some organized sport) prepares them for that too.
It sounds convincing, but is it really a good idea to have military leaders who’ve basically never had the experience of thinking seriously about something? By which I mean partly unhurried thinking, with time to argue things out and pursue loose ends. At least for the last fifty years, the think-fast-not-deep thing just hasn’t worked very well– as I’ve pointed out before, the American military is on a long losing streak, despite having more firepower than the rest of the world combined.
That’s bad in itself, but it seems to me the real reason for worry is that this West-Point approach is seeping out beyond the military itself, into American society at large. On the one hand, our military leaders aren’t content with the military domain any more; instead they turn up in high civic offices, running the CIA and the like, and in the media, where they hold forth about the state of the world and what we should do about it. Even David Petraeus has recently returned to advice-offering, pushing for various strategies in dealing with ISIS. According to CNN, “many in the foreign policy establishment still seek out his views, so his proposal will no doubt be taken seriously.”
Meanwhile our education reformers sound eager to bring some of the West Point spirit to our beleaguered schools. We hear about is the need for frequent testing and clear goals, for both students and teachers; unstructured activity can only derail those objectives. Every so often there’s even a push to bring back school uniforms, though thankfully that seems to have died down for the moment. What hasn’t died down is the sense that young people need to pack in more activities, and whatever gets in the way of those is just an obstacle to good education.
So my suggestion is, thinking about our sorry military score-card isn’t just for military historians or policy geeks. All those wars we’ve lost against weaker opponents suggest that West Point-ism doesn’t even work on the battlefields it was designed for. Why would we expect it to work elsewhere in society? Why are we making students’ lives more constantly busy, rather than less?