Academic Exchange Quarterly  Summer 2004   ISSN 1096-1453   Volume 8, Issue 2 


Academics and Professional Military Education

By Janeen Klinger

Command and Staff College

Marine Corps University


Professor of National Security at the Command and Staff College or Marine Corps University.  Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley and teaching experience at several colleges and universities with the latest as adjunct for Mary Washington College.


Disclaimer:  The views contained in the article are  the author's and do not necessarily 
represent the views of the  Command and Staff College or Marine Corps University  or any of it's components and activities.


Abstract:  This article discusses the renewed urgency for broader liberal arts education at professional military schools (PME) for mid-level officers and recommends broadening the academic backgrounds of civilian faculty.  The article compares the teaching environment for faculty with more traditional college teaching to illustrate some of the disadvantages to teaching in PME that may be obstacles to recruitment of civilian faculty.



The collapse of the USSR which brought such profound changes to the international security environment also altered the responsibilities for the U.S. military by increasing their role in “peacetime engagement;” a role that closely resembles diplomacy.  Moreover, the ongoing war against terrorism and war in Iraq require the military to engage in “nation building” that is quite different from more traditional combat missions.  Given both conditions, the U.S. officer corps increasingly requires a sophisticated understanding of international and regional politics in order to function effectively.  Fortunately, the military has a longstanding tradition of professional military education (PME) and each service has its own intermediate and top-level schools.  For example the U.S. Army has its two schools at different locations with the intermediate Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and its top level Army War College at Carlisle Pennsylvania.  The Navy runs both its Naval Command and Staff College and War College from Newport, Rhode Island.  The Navy also runs the Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey, California which grants graduate degrees in engineering, science and national security affairs.  The Air Force has both its Air Command and Staff and Air War College co-located at Maxwell Air Force base in Alabama.  The Marines have both their Command and Staff College and War college at Quantico, Virginia.  The service schools are supplemented by the joint schools of the National Defense University (NDU) located in Washington, D. C. and composed of two top level schools: The National War College and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces.  NDU’s intermediate level school is the Joint Armed Forces Staff College located in Norfolk, Virginia.  The difference between intermediate and top level schools lies with the rank of officers enrolled: the former enrolls majors while the latter educates lieutenant colonels or colonels.


 Completion of an intermediate and top-level program has long been important for career advancement of officers.  As such professional military education bears some resemblance to other post-graduate professional programs.  However, the shift from military training to graduate level rigor is relatively new to PME institutions.  PME schools began or expanded efforts to gain accreditation and with it authority to grant masters degrees as a result of Congressional hearings held from 9 December 1987 to 22 September 1988.[1]


This article argues on behalf of broadening the background of civilian academics recruited to PME to ensure a balance among disciplines as well as a balance between those with prior military service and those without.  This article will then discuss pedagogical considerations for PME that are different from traditional college teaching and that may present obstacles to recruitment of such a faculty.


Broadening Civilian Faculty

Given the growing importance of integrating more liberal arts education into PME, careful thought should be given to the nature of the academics recruited  as faculty.  Two important criteria for faculty qualifications must be considered:  academic disciplines most appropriate for enhancing the liberal arts component of PME and the value of prior military service.  Currently the disciplinary bias of PME faculties lies with military history.  An emphasis on military history seems natural for PME because the practical concerns of military education require that students know and understand aspects of the art of warfare.  Studying military history fills this need.  The other discipline heavily represented in PME is political science.  Most service schools have only a smattering of other fields like economics or management.  At most intermediate level schools military historians outnumber political scientists by at least two to one.  The Army Command and General Staff College shows the greatest disproportion of historians and only the Navy Schools at Newport have struck a balance with a roughly comparable number of faculty drawn from each discipline.  The disciplinary breakdown is not much different at top-level service schools with military historians outnumbering political scientists at the Army and Marine Corps War Colleges.  Again, the Navy School has maintained a balance with a comparable number from each field.  The Air War College is the only PME institution where the political scientists outnumber the historians by a margin of three to one.[2]


PME schools seem to value political science for what it might contribute to curriculum content.  Therefore, the discipline’s contribution is assumed to lie with the extent that it adds to the understanding of national security policy, foreign policy and decision-making.  In fact, the greater relevance of political science may well lie with its mode of thinking or method for formulating questions which is quite distinct from the approach used by historians.  Political scientists generally try to state problems explicitly in the form of causal relations between variables.[3] The drawback to expressing a problem in such a way is that the approach simplifies reality.  The advantage to simplification is that it allows the analyst to generalize with the ultimate aim of formulating appropriate policy.  Similarly, whenever the military tries to design a “decisive operation”, that is a military operation that will have the maximum effect for the resources used, they require a mode of thinking that is conducive for creating unity of effort.  In short, any decisive operation must think in terms of a causal relation between variables.  Designing a decisive operation therefore requires a habit of thinking that is more akin to the way political science expresses a research problem.  Historians on the other hand, view causation in a more nuanced way often composed of a detailed description that portrays multiple variables at work causing a particular phenomenon or outcome.  Although much work by historians often contains some sort of causal relation, that causal claim is not always explicitly expressed.  Applying a historian’s intellectual approach would not be very helpful to an officer designing a decisive operation because if many variables are of equal importance in causation, and no single variable can be identified as most important, then the thinking would be conducive for devising plans that dissipate effort to no effect on the enemy.[4]  Of course, recognizing the value of political science does not obviate the need for a historical approach to serve as a reminder that social reality is in fact complex and causal relations problematic to identify.  The study of history also broadens the officer’s experience to aid in recognizing patterns.  Striking a balance between the two disciplines may be the best way to prepare an officer to cope with and respond to unexpected conditions encountered on the battlefield should the causal chain posited in his plan prove inaccurate.


Although I would argue that the optimal mix between political science and history for PME institutions is 50-50, and the actual bias is towards military history, there is one discipline that has been completely neglected on the faculties at professional military schools.  The discipline that has been overlooked is anthropology.  Given the new security environment where the US military is more likely to play a role comparable to imperial policing in small wars or in military operations other than war, the study of culture continues to grow in importance.  Anthropology is the study of culture which, although the concept is contested, can be defined as “that complex whole including. . .beliefs, morals, laws, customs,. . .acquired by man as a member of society.”  Part of the contested nature of the concept is the extent to which cultural differences matter.[5]  For the US military increasingly deployed in a wide range of cultural settings, how much cultural differences matter is a profoundly important question and one that requires some anthropological expertise be added to officer education.


Beyond academic disciplines, a second criterion for choosing faculty to educate military professionals, is prior military service.  Currently, service schools range in the extent to which civilian faculty have served in the military.  On the low side is the Air War College where only about one quarter of the permanent civilian faculty have served in the military.  Interestingly, the Air War College is one institution where political scientists outnumber military historians and I speculate that the disciplinary focus is related to lack of military service because retired officers seem less likely to pursue an advanced degree in political science than in military history.  The Army War College has the highest percentage of civilian faculty with prior military service with about 60 percent.  Other professional service schools fall somewhere between the two.  As with the best balance for academic discipline, the optimal balance for enhancing the liberal arts component of military education should be a faculty where about 50 percent of the civilians have prior military experience while the other half does not.  Civilian faculty with prior military service bring the advantage of familiarity with military issues and organizations.  Because of their familiarity with the military, such civilians will be comfortable in the PME environment and easier to recruit.  On the other hand civilian faculty with no prior military experience are essential for bringing a critical outside perspective to examine assumptions, and procedures.  Moreover, faculty without prior military experience have the additional advantage of not being partisan to inter-service rivalries or biased towards any particular military specialty.  Within the world of PME there is a healthy tension between the demands of graduate education and the requisites of a military institution.  Consequently, both faculty with prior military experience and those without have a role to play in educating today’s officer corps.


Obstacles to Recruitment

Academics think of teaching most often in terms of conventional colleges.  But teaching in a military institution is quite different and in some respects compares unfavorably with traditional colleges.  The fact that PME does vary from more traditional college teach serves as a barrier to recruitment, especially in those disciplines like anthropology that are not represented.  The greatest drawback to teaching in a PME setting is that it is more difficult to specialize in teaching.  While to some extent becoming a generalist can be a refreshing departure from what many see as the excessively narrow specialization in higher education, [6] PME institutions may err in the opposite direction.  For example, at the Command and Staff College of Marine Corps University both political scientists and historians teach a core course that includes case comparisons of four military campaigns, even though the subject lies more within the historian’s expertise.  Teaching that blurs disciplinary boundaries can increase the difficulties of linking teaching with research interests because finding publication outlets for research that similarly blurs disciplinary boundaries can be problematic.  The tendency to make faculty too much the generalist that creates such research dilemmas is perhaps more acute at smaller educational institutions with smaller faculties.  In the world of PME, the Marine Corps War College and Command and Staff College suffers the most from excessive generalization because the programs are the smallest in military education.


Related to the fact that PME demands faculty become generalists, is a second drawback to teaching in a military setting: less autonomy for faculty.  PME programs are much more centralized in their instruction and require that faculty teach core curriculum not of their own design.  Although faculty have input and can shape the curriculum, elements like assigned reading and written assignments are decided by others.  Consequently, if an academic genuinely loves the creative act of course design and experimentation he might find teaching at the service schools stifling.  To be sure, the curriculum does have room for electives which allow faculty to have a free reign in course design.


A third disadvantage associated with teaching students at service schools, is that as a group, the students are impatient with abstract, theoretical formulations and crave knowledge that is obviously practical.  The key to effective teaching of such an audience is to be aware of the student’s need for applied knowledge and explicitly show the practical implications of theory.  Most theories of international politics have practical implications and the instructor’s job is to help the student’s extrapolate those implications.  For example, specialists in international relations debate the validity of “democratic peace theory” which claims that democracies are not as inclined to go to war against other democracies as they are against other types of regimes.[7]  Understanding the implications of the theory is no ivory tower exercise but has practical implications for US foreign policy and the application of military force that may accompany it.  In the end, although academics may find the pragmatic nature of the officers frustrating, it remains much more satisfying (and feasible) to justify the study of Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War to students concerned with their next deployment to a peace-keeping mission, than to motivate undergraduates in a general education course, who are as yet unlikely to have clear professional goals in mind.


Despite the disadvantages to teaching in a PME setting, some clear advantages exist that must be stressed when recruiting faculty.  Because the students are older they are motivated to do the work in a way that undergraduates seldom will be.  Consequently, teachers need not expend time and energy structuring courses to ensure that students cannot take shortcuts to the work.  The advent of the computer age makes this part of undergraduate teaching exceptionally difficult because of the ease with which students can purchase and download papers off the Internet.  Teaching seminars to motivated older adults is also intellectually challenging in a way that teaching 18 to 21 year olds could never be.  Older students often have insight drawn from experience that allows them to formulate issues in novel ways that might not even have occurred to the instructor.  Consequently, teaching in PME might be especially intimidating to newly minted PhDs.  Nevertheless, the intellectual challenge provided for the professor makes teaching in PME exceptionally rewarding.


Although all teaching has intrinsic value, another benefit to PME teaching is the fact that its value is so readily apparent.  Nowhere is the value more apparent than in the work with one segment of the student body:  the international officers.  These students truly represent the best and the brightest that their countries’ have and many will one day become generals in their native nation.  Further when these foreign officers come from parts of the former Soviet empire, the instructor has the opportunity to instill through the example of open seminar discussion, lessons about the respect for human rights and the need for civilian control of the military.  When officers from the former Soviet bloc walk across the stage at graduation, one cannot help but think that the prospects for democracy and political stability may be enhanced.[8]


Most surprising, given the fact that any military organization tends to be male dominated, is that the environment is not inhospitable to women, although the expectation that it would be might be a barrier to recruitment.  Mentoring across gender lines is more commonplace than one might find in many college departments.  Moreover, resentment against affirmative action is less palpable than in academia where one hears some of the most unsavory views concerning gender and affirmative action.[9]  To be sure, officers do have a tendency towards an almost old-fashioned sense of chivalry illustrated by behavior like opening doors and offering to carry heavy boxes.  For some women academics these practices might smack of condescension, to others it reflects merely the good manners within the military.  Of course, one cannot adhere to a rigid, militant feminist orthodoxy and automatically dismiss the utility of a traditionally all male endeavor.


The final benefit to teaching officers in the US military is the fact that the overall quality of one’s professional life compares favorably with other academic settings.  From the more practical pay and benefits criteria to overall collegiality, life at PME institutions is better than the norm for other higher educational institutions.  In part, the greater collegiality I believe, stems from the hierarchy of priorities that is essential for success in the military.  As one general expressed the point, success in the military depends on internalizing the following hierarchy of priorities:


  1. My mission
  2. My personnel
  3. Myself[10]


I defy anyone to find any academic department where the chair (let alone the Dean) has a similar hierarchy of priorities.  The result is the well-known proclivity of academic departments for petty and vicious office politics.[11]  Many chairs in college academic departments think they are doing a great job if the rest of the department members are bitter and alienated.  Any officer with a similar approach would run the risk of being shot in the back by his own troops if he were ever deployed to a war zone.


Recognition of the utility of war and the value of PME does not necessitate holding a rigid, martinet view of the application of force to all circumstances.  Rather, following the admonition of Carl Von Clausewitz, one must take the study of war seriously to know when its use is appropriate, yet realize its potential—like a Frankenstein monster—to spin out of control.


                        Theory, therefore, demands that at the outset of a war its

                        character and scope should be determined on the basis of

                        political probabilities.  The closer these political probabilities

                        drive war toward the absolute, the more the belligerent states

                        are involved and drawn into its vortex, the clearer appear the

                        connections between its separate actions and the more imperative the

need not to take the first step without considering the last. (emphasis added)[12]


PME strives to give students the intellectual capital to make this determination in an increasingly ambiguous and complex security environment.


[1] See, H.A.S.C. No 100-125, Professional Military Education Hearings before the Panel on Military Education of the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, One Hundredth Congress, First and Second Sessions.

[2] The data for this discussion was obtained through telephone interviews and e-mail correspondence with administrators and is imprecise because no single administrator seemed responsible for recording the information.  In fact, data from NDU simply was not available.  The fact that there seems to be so little institutional knowledge concerning the number of faculty holding degrees in each field may simply be a result of weak bureaucratic oversight, or may be indicative of the fact that little conscious thought has been given to what particular disciplines contribute to PME.

[3] Stating problems as causal relations between variables is only one way that political science differs from history in the study of international relations.  For elaboration of the contribution and approach that each discipline makes see:  Colin Elman and Miriam Fendius Elman, Bridges and Boundaries:  Historians, Political Scientists and the Study of International Relations (Cambridge, Massachusetts:  MIT Press, 2001).

[4] I am indebted to LTC Jon Lehr (USA) for his insight into the nature and problems of decisive operations that led me to recognize this less obvious value of political science research design and thinking for military officers.

[5] Clifford Geertz, Available Light:  Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), passim.

[6] For an excellent discussion of the consequences of excessive specialization in academia see, James Kurth, “Inside the Cave:  The Banality of I.R. Studies,” The National Interest 53 (Fall 1998) 29-40.  For another critical view see Simon Schama, “Clio Has a Problem,” The New York Times Magazine September 8, 1991 where Schama observes, “The once spacious chambers of the historical house have become subdivided into ever smaller closets of specialization.” 30.

[7] For examples illustrating the debate over democratic peace theory see: Christopher Layne, “Kant or Cant: The Myth of Democratic Peace,” International Security 19 (Fall 1994): 5-49 and John M. Owen, “How Liberalism Produces Democratic Peace,” International Security 19 (Fall 1994): 87-125.

[8] American PME institutions are not the only places where important military to military exchanges with former Soviet bloc states take place.  The George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies provides additional opportunities for East-West Cooperation.  See: Richard Cohen, “The Marshall Center—an Experiment in East-West Cooperation,” The NATO Review 43 (July 1995): 27-31.

[9] An anecdotal illustration of unsavory views concerning gender comes from the author’s experience teaching at a liberal arts college.  During a departmental meeting discussing the impact of submitting an all white male slate of job candidates to the woman Dean, a male colleague exclaimed:  “I do not care who we hire as long as we cram one of these candidates down her throat!”

[10] Statement made during a lecture to the Marine Corps Command and Staff College during the winter term for academic year 1997-1998.  Because the college maintains a policy of non-attribution so that general officers will speak candidly off the record, the author must withhold the name of the general.

[11] My characterization of academia is by no means original.  See Kurth, where he says:  “Most of this academic make-work is done by people who are with second-rate universities, third-rate minds and fourth rate temperaments.”  See also David L. Kirp, “How Much for That Professor?” The New York Times, October 27, 2003 where the author decries the “me, myself and I” entrepreneurship that permeates academia.

[12] Carl Von Clausewitz, On War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976)), 5