Military Education Approaching a Fork in the Road

What is the purpose of military education, and how should it be delivered? These questions are being posed with increasing urgency on both sides of the Atlantic. The incessant pace of technological change, a renewal of serious great power competition, and persistent political pressure to decrease military budgets have all contributed to a sense that intellectual agility and innovation are crucial to ensuring that Western armed forces remain competitive in the mid-21st century. How to foster independent and original thought is thus an issue of critical importance, and questions are rightly being asked about whether the existing system of military education, centered around the war and staff colleges, is suitable for the task which confronts it.

In a recent article for War on the Rocks, Paula Thornhill, the former faculty dean of the U.S. National War College, made the case that the current U.S. system of professional military education is not fit for purpose. Building on criticisms made in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which labeled the defense educational establishment as “stagnant,” she charged that the current system fails to produce the sort of staff officers required to make effective strategic and command decisions. Central to her critique was a second charge levelled in the National Defense Strategy: namely that the pursuit of academic accreditations by professional military education institutions has become detrimental to those establishments bottom line of preparing officers for senior staff and command roles. In her view, the interaction between military and academic accreditation systems at staff colleges tend to produce “generic, unfocused strategic studies curricula that fail to provide the specific skills the military needs.” The academic assessments required for these courses are ill-suited to preparing students to produce the shorter, more succinct appreciations required in staff work. Moreover, the academically minded civilian faculty at professional military education institutions may represent “the greatest challenge” to addressing these issues, owing to their attachment to “academic” forms of assessment which are of little relevance to students’ future employment.

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