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Teaching in the Department of Social Sciences


You will need to understand the importance of military power and also the limits of military power – to decide what arms should be used to fight and when they should be used to prevent a fight – to determine what represents our vital interests and what interests are only marginal. Above all, you will have a responsibility to deter war as well as to fight it.
-- President John F. Kennedy, addressing the USMA Graduating Class, June 1962.
On the subject of curriculum design, that noted terpsichorean Friedrich Nietzsche once observed: “Dancing in all its forms cannot be excluded from the curriculum of all noble education: dancing with the feet, with ideas, with words, and, need I add that one must also be able to dance with the pen.” While the elimination of mandatory ballroom dancing instruction may have detracted from the quality of the “noble education” at West Point in Nietzsche’s view, there is no shortage of contending subjects to take its place.
How does one think about designing a curriculum for a military academy? Just as there is tension between the demands of liberal education and military training, there are also differing perspectives on what subjects constitute the most appropriate intellectual preparation for commissioned officers.
Four fundamental tensions attend consideration of curriculum structure: (1) the degree to which USMA as an institution should embody a broad, liberal education versus a focused military career-oriented program; (2) the question of what sort of education provides the best foundation for the military career: a broad, liberal program, or an engineering-intensive program; (3) the pedagogical question of which intellectual emphasis is most appropriate for preparing military officers: emphasis on mastery of a particular body of knowledge, or emphasis on methodological skills; and (4) the age-old question of how to draw a balance between foundation (core) courses and, yet, retain the opportunity for some degree of study in depth with elective courses. The import of these tensions is reinforced by scarce academic resources – there is a limited number of course spaces and classroom hours in which disciplines can be taught – and the fact that the continuing explosion of knowledge means that in any discipline one is compelled to focus survey courses at an increasingly superficial level. These tensions are important for understanding the evolution and current state of the USMA curriculum. Accordingly, they are discussed further before examining the current curriculum.
The Military Academy must offer an academic program in an environment conducive to professional growth. While much of the prescribed program at West Point parallels the educational requirements of other professionally-oriented institutions, it is in many ways unique because it must go beyond those to fulfill the special needs of the Army. The academic program of the Military Academy is guided by a philosophy of intellectual development that recognizes goals traditionally associated with any sound undergraduate education: transmission of basic knowledge in the sciences and the humanities; development of a critical understanding of various methods of acquiring knowledge; encouragement of an ability to reason logically; exposure to moral and ethical problems as a basis for informed individual judgment; development of the ability to communicate clearly ad concisely; and finally, stimulation of a lifetime desire for continued intellectual growth through both formal schooling and self- development. Together, these goals contribute to the intellectual development expected of any educated person. The Military Academy’s philosophy of education is further guided by related goals that also reflect its requirement to provide a high quality education in a challenging military environment that will prepare young men and women for the rigors of a career of service in peace or war. These goals include development of the judgment and ethics required of professional Army officers, an appreciation of American society and the role of the military in it, an interest in world affairs, the technical base required to understand both the capabilities and limitations of the tools of the military profession, and a self-confidence based on achievement of the initial competence required for continuing development in a military career. To these ends, the academic program provides a consistent framework within which cadets can develop under constructive criticism, growing in self- knowledge as well as assimilating standards of excellence, both academic and military. The broad plan of study is expected to prepare graduates for the wide range of challenges facing military officers and develop leaders possessing a devotion to duty, a sense of honorable behavior, and a desire to serve their country.
These intellectual goals are essential and are pursued throughout the academy program; they provide the basic frame of reference for academic instruction. Within that frame of reference, however, the emphasis is on breadth of education to support long-term development rather than short-term, narrow vocational skills. Certainly the fundamental knowledge and skills important to successful completion of the early years of service are provided, but the central concern is to develop habits of critical analysis and intellectual curiosity. Furthermore, intellectual development is intimately linked to development of the strong ethical precepts that are central to the West Point experience. A basic commitment of the intellectual enterprise is an unswerving devotion to truth, which provides an essential basis for the development of integrity and honor.
While few would argue with this educational philosophy, inherent tensions remain that must be resolved in curriculum design. Foremost among these concerns is the ever-present question of what, precisely, constitutes education? Is it the accumulation of a body of knowledge, the development of habits of thought and analysis, or both? This issue subsumes the tensions attending the consideration of West Point as an institution and the West Point education.
Consider the view of Charles Dickens on education, as expressed in Hard Times:
“Now, what I want is Facts, teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!” The scene was a plain, bar, monotonous vault of a schoolroom, and the speaker’s square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster’s sleeve. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s square wall of a forehead…. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s voice, which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial… The speaker’s obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders—nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was—all helped the emphasis: “In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!”
What follows in Hard Times is a playful examination of the place Fancy or imagination plays in education. It is an examination made at the expense of Dickens’ two unimaginative schoolmasters, Mr. Gradgrind and M’Choakumchild. At the end of a long harangue with their pupils, the narrator draws this conclusion:
So, Mr. M’Choakumchild began in his best manner. He and someone hundred and forty other schoolmasters had been lately turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many piano-forte legs. He had been put through an immense variety of paces, and had answered volumes of head-breaking questions. Orthography, etymology, syntax, and prosody, biography, astronomy, geography, and general cosmography, the sciences of compound proportion, algebra, land-surveying and leveling, vocal music and drawing from models, were all at the ends of his ten chilled fingers. He had worked his stony way into Her Majesty’s most Honorable Privy Council’s Schedule and had taken the bloom off the higher branches of mathematics and physical science, French, German, Latin, and Greek. He knew all about the Water-sheds of all the world (whatever they are), and all the histories of all the peoples, and all the names of all the rivers and mountains, and all the productions, manners, and customs of all the countries, and all their boundaries and bearings on the two-and-thirty points of the compass. Ah, rather overdone, M’Choakumchild. If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!
Dickens, of course, is on the side of Fancy. He’s not against Fact; he’s against an over reliance on Fact, and Hart Times shows what a mess of things can be made by those whose lives harden into a code of behavior, into dogma, into the certainty that a too easy fixation on Fact can yield.
Turning from Dickens to John Henry Newman, we enjoy one of the most important discourses from The Idea of a University, a discourse titled “Knowledge Viewed in Relation to a Professional Skill:”
We know, not by a direct and simple vision, not at a glance, but, as it were, by piecemeal and accumulation, by a mental process, by going round an object, by the comparison, the combination, the mutual correction, the continual adaptation, of many partial notions, by the employment, concentration, and joint action of many faculties and exercises of mind. Such a union and concern of the intellectual powers, such an enlargement and development, such comprehensiveness, is necessarily a matter of training. And again, such a training is a matter of rule; it is not mere application, however exemplary, which introduces the mind to truth, nor the reading of many books, nor the getting up on many subjects, nor the witnessing many experiments, nor the attending many lectures. All this is short of enough; a man may have done it all, yet be lingering in the vestibule of knowledge. He may not realize what his mouth utters; he may not see with his mental eye what confronts him; he may have no grasp of things as they are; or at least he may have no power at all of advancing one step forward of himself, in consequence of what he had already acquired, no power of discriminating between truth and falsehood, of sifting out the grains of truth from the mass, of arranging things according to their real value, and, if I may use the phrase, of building up ideas. Such a power is the result of a scientific formation of mind; it is an acquired faculty of judgment, of clear-sightedness, of sagacity, of wisdom, of philosophical reach of mind, and of intellectual self- possession and repose—qualities that do not come of mere acquirement…
This process of training, by which the intellect, instead of being formed of sacrificed to some particular or accidental purpose, some specific trade or profession, or study or science, is disciplined for its own sake, for the perception of its own proper object, and for its own highest culture, is called Liberal Education….
Now this is what some great men are very slow to allow; they insist that Education should be confined to some particular and narrow end, and should issue in some definite work, which can be weighed and measured. They argue as if everything, as well as every person, had its price; and that where there has been a great outlay, they have a right to expect a return in kind. This they call making Education and Instruction “useful,” and “Utility” becomes their watchword.
Newman goes on to argue against those who expect education to serve a narrow “useful” end and lays claim to the notion that “University training is a great ordinary means to a great but ordinary end; it aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste…. It is the education that gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing the, and a force in urging them. It teaches him to see things as they are….”
The tension between Dickens’ Facts and Newman’s Liberal Education has been a source for continuing debate over curriculum structure and pedagogy at West Point almost since the founding of the institution.
In his 1988 Sol Feinstone Lecture at West Point, A. Bartlett Giamatti quoted from John Milton’s treatise Of Education: “I call … a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skillfully and magnanimously all the offices, both private and public, of peace and war.” Giamatti noted that Milton’s educational scheme had a civic goal as its end; Milton saw the purpose of intellectual training as the making of a citizen who would actively, forcefully participate in the shaping and the serving and the protecting of the state.
The fundamental rationale for the curriculum historically has reflected the nation’s needs: for technical engineers in 1802, for experts in the art of war and military science a century later, and for professional military officers able to serve in an increasingly varied range of specialties by the 1990s. Despite these changes, the notion that engineering and science are vitally important in the development of professional officers persists. This contention reflects a variety of presumptions: these disciplines are substantively relevant to the Army; these disciplines develop rigorous, logical, problem-solving habits of thought that are essential for Army officers; nearly 200 years of tradition has served the country well—why change?
On the other hand, of course, the domestic and international environments in which the Army is charged with executing its missions have changed enormously, particularly, many argue, since the end of the Cold War. The complexities, interdependences, and dynamics of these changes have stimulated an explosion of knowledge that will increasingly challenge future Army officers.
Accordingly, one can easily make an argument for a wide variety of academic curricula, all of which inevitably will be frustrated by the impossibility of allocating a limited number of course spaces so as to span all competing demands: provision and development of a foundation knowledge of the wide variety of disciplines (in the basic sciences, applied engineering to include engineering design, humanities, and social sciences); development of professional skills (in military science, military history, leadership, and physical education); and provision of opportunity for some degree of academic specialization. This absolute constraint confounds all attempts to resolve these curricular tensions.
Many argue, in particular, for drawing a curricular balance among these competing demands that preserves the opportunity for specialization and greater in-depth studies. Only in this way can we demand and expect cadets to be able to transcend facts-accumulation and develop the higher- ordered cognitive skills of Newman’s Liberal Education.
Although few would take issue with the postulate that a West Point education should aim for “intellectual excellence” rather than the Facts considered so dear to Gradgrind and M’Choackumchild, there is substantial room for disagreement on how you get there. These fundamental tensions – including the precepts of liberal education and the requirements of basic military education – can be managed, but never totally resolved. As Samuel Huntington observed in The Soldier and the State, the service academies “still try to combine both a general, liberal education and a basic military education into a single program.” This inherently difficult task is further compounded by the absolute constraint of a limited number of course spaces.
West Point’s initial claim to educational prestige derived from its success as an “institute of technology” in which science, engineering, and systematic pedagogical techniques were featured. Over the years the academic structure and curriculum were gradually expanded:
1803 – drawing and French;

1816 – English, philosophy, ethics, geography, military instruction;

1818 – chemistry;

1834 – military history and strategy, Spanish.
By 1900 courses representing almost all currently-offered disciplines were part of the USMA curriculum.
Curricular change was minimal during the 1900 – 1950 period. By the 1950s, the curriculum featured 48 core academic courses. No electives were offered for cadets of advanced standing or who had validated course.
In 1960, the Superintendent, LTG Garrison Davidson, instituted a revised curriculum in which advanced standing and elective courses were offered. The number of electives available to a cadet gradually increased to four by 1969. The rationale for the specialization theme of this significant change is instructive:
  • the Army’s technical requirements;
  • Army research and development needs;
  • Economic-political expertise.
  • It is clear that the fundamental curricular tensions were reflected in this “liberalization” rationale in the 1960’s.
    By the mid-1970s, the curriculum featured 48 academic courses (42 core, plus 6 electives) and 4 course-equivalents of military science and physical education. Electives were selected to align with general guidelines by area of study. In addition, a “generalist” area of study existed.
    Although curriculum reform proposals were developed in this period to resolve perceived weaknesses (e.g., cadet over-subscription of the generalist area of study, scheduling difficulties, and concern for the quality of certain basic science course sequences), reform remained elusive until the series of in-depth curricular studies following the 1976 honor scandal. Two years of intensive study of curricular issues resulted in major changes in 1978:
  • the core structure was reduced to 30 courses;
  • the generalist area of study was eliminated;
  • electives structure requirements were tightened, based on fields of concentration (6 field electives, 2 associated electives, 2 free electives; and
  • scheduling factors were revised to reduce the aggregate academic load and to open larger, continuous blocks of time for cadet discretionary use.
  • Before transition to this 1978 curriculum was completed, two follow-on revisions occurred. The first curriculum revision instituted a tracking system in which cadets selected a Math, Science, and Engineering (MSE) or Humanities and Public Affairs (HPA) program featuring appropriately- tailored core and elective courses. In addition, area courses were designed to span the generalist-specialist tension, and second semesters of military art and law were incorporated into the core program.
    The second curricular change, adoption of an optional academic majors program, was approved in early 1983. That curriculum, which is the one place today, has two primary structural features. The first is a core of 31 courses that USMA considers essential to the broad base of knowledge necessary for all graduates. The core curriculum, when combined with courses in physical education and military science, constitutes USMA’s “professional major.” The second structural feature of the present curriculum is the opportunity to specialize and explore an area in depth through the selection of a field of study or an optional academic major. This portion of the curriculum is supported by not less than 9 elective courses for cadets pursuing a field of study and from 10 to 13 electives for cadets pursuing an academic major. There are 32 fields of study and 17 associated majors available to cadets. About two-thirds of each class pursue the majors program.
    Within the core curriculum, there is an MSE sequence intended to provide cadets with a fundamental knowledge of the experimental and analytical techniques of the basic sciences. This sequence, called a thread, begins in Fourth Class (Freshman) year with two semesters of mathematics and two semesters of chemistry. It continues in Third Class (Sophomore) year with two semesters of mathematics, two semesters of physics, and terrain analysis.
    Five courses in Second and First Class years contribute to the MSE thread. Each cadet must complete one of five core course engineering sequences composed of three engineering science and two engineering design courses. The seven engineering sequences available to cadets are mechanical, electrical, civil, nuclear, systems, computer, or environmental.
    For the class of 2005, the academic curriculum will change to include only three courses in their engineering sequence for cadets majoring in the Humanities and Social Sciences.
    The core curriculum also includes a computer science thread designed to ensure that every graduate is comfortable with the use of information technology. This facility is developed through an introductory computer science course in Fourth Class year and the integration of computer applications throughout the core curriculum. Cadets in the class of 2005 will take an Information Technology 2 course, normally during their Second Class year.
    The core curriculum also includes a strong sequence of social sciences, behavioral sciences and history to develop an awareness of the people, government, and society that every graduate will serve as a commissioned officer. This sequence begins in Fourth Class year with two semesters of history and one semester of psychology. It continues in Third class year with one semester of political science, one semester of philosophy, and one of economics. Second Class year includes tow semesters of military history, a semester of international relations, and one of military leadership. This thread concludes in First Class year with a semester of constitutional law.
    Language skills are also an important thread in the core curriculum. English composition and literature courses in Fourth Class year and an additional course in composition in Second Class year are aimed at producing a high level of competence in written and oral communications skills. Additionally, all cadets must take at least two semesters of one of the seven foreign languages offered.
    Although widely perceived to be a major change in the traditional and historically-validated West Point approach to education, the current regime (fields of study and optional majors) is squarely in the mainstream of evolutionary change that, although substantially accelerated by Army demands for increased specialization since 1960, has continued since the early nineteenth century. Triggered by changing environmental requirements as articulated by the Army, West Point’s curriculum has been and is sure to evolve slowly and self-consciously because, in large part, of the inherent tensions discussed above.
    Social Sciences at West Point clearly does not embody all of the academic disciplines commonly subsumed under that title. Indeed it was not until 1946 that the title of Department of Social Sciences emerged to replace the more unwieldy, but perhaps more descriptive, title of Department of Economics, Government and History (1921-1946); itself a lineal descendant of the Department of English, History, Economics and Government (1910-1921), Today, the Department of Social Sciences, the fourth generation progeny of Sylvanus Thayer’s Department of Geography, History and Ethics, shares the responsibility for teaching social sciences at West Point with the Department of Law, History, Geography and Environmental Engineering, and Behavioral Sciences and Leadership.
    Within this broader context of Social Sciences, the Department of Social Sciences assumes the responsibility for the disciplines of Economics, American Politics, Comparative Politics, and International Politics, and it shares responsibility in an interdisciplinary role in Foreign Area Studies and Management. Although the Department’s name has undergone metamorphosis, and functions and responsibilities have been defined and redefined, the changes represent less a narrowing of scope of interest than a necessary accommodation to the virtual explosion of knowledge within the social sciences in the past half-century.
    Almost forty years ago, General “Abe” Lincoln observed that his predecessor, General Herman Beukema, had accepted from the first department head, Colonel Lucius Holt, :the premise that the department for which he was responsible could not be static, but must, in its filed, meet changing forecasts of our national security needs.” This philosophy has remained the watchword of the department. Today the curriculum and activities of the Department of Social Sciences reflect the continued commitment to ensure that each cadet develops those necessary capabilities, intellectual and professional, that will allow the mature and thoughtful exercise of their individual responsibilities as citizens and professional officers. Each of the courses offered by the Department is designed to give an understanding of the subject matter covered, to present the methodology for conceptualizing and analyzing problems in these areas of knowledge, and to indicate the relationships of each of these courses to the cadet’s future duties as a citizen and an officer.
    The Department of Social Sciences teaches three prescribed courses. Cadets are introduced to the study of the Social Sciences in their Third Class Year when they take a two semester core course sequence consisting of Government and Politics, and Economics. The Government and Politics course introduces students to the nature of politics, government, and political science. The course begins with the study of the constitutional foundations of American government and then examines political participation, political institutions, and policy making processes.
    The standard course in Economics presents the basic principles of economic analysis and their application to contemporary problems, and it supports the future study of economics and related disciplines in the social sciences. This course is organized into two general sections: Microeconomics and Macroeconomics, with a limited discussion of International Economics.
    International Relations is the third core course taught by the Department and is normally taken during the Second Class Year. The objectives of this course are to provide the student with an introduction to the fundamental concepts of international politics and the analytical tools necessary to undertake the evaluation of contemporary as well as past issues in foreign policy. To accomplish these objectives cadets learn to explain the behavior of states by examining theoretical explanations of the international political system, the varying internal characteristics of states, and the decision-making processes employed by various political leaders.
    In addition to the three core courses, the Department offers fields of study and majors programs in economics and political science.
    The current Redbook provides complete details on the USMA curriculum, Department field of study and majors programs, and course offerings. The Redbook will continue to reflect changes in course offerings and program structure of every area of academic endeavor at West Point. The Redbook is the authoritative source of information on the USMA academic program. Every member of the Department should be familiar with its contents.
    The formal structure of the academic program provides the pedagogic shell within which we try to imbue every cadet with the habits of mind needed to be a commissioned officer in the United States Army. In the final analysis, the balance you strike in accommodating the conflicting guidance from Dickens’s Gradgrind and M’Choakumchild, Newman, Nietzsche, and Giamatti will be as important as the formal structure of the curriculum in influencing cadet academic and professional development. The fundamental tensions involved in curriculum design at West Point will become apparent as you balance priorities in your own classes. You will be the final arbiter, and your decisions will leave a substantial impact on the next generation of Army Officers.