The revisers were a sort of triumvirate, with the Supe at the head, the Com in the middle and me at the foot, whose job it was mainly to compose and sometimes add my mite. I had a hard time catching up, for MacArthur was increasingly spraying Danford and me with new ideas, but fortunately he did not retract or change his mind once having given his blessing to a procedure, unless controverting facts turned up. And the Com, in furthering the Supe's ideas, made some important extensions of his own. But it was MacArthur who drove himself with the fervor of the prophets of old, as if the Day of Judgment would come when the renovation would have to cease. No flaw must be missed.
"Chief, the attrition of the Corps is prodigal." He had that solemn focus of a man thinking over his next move at chess. "A disproportionate number of cadets are found deficient and discharged, especially in their fourth class year. They might be salvaged with proper effort and without affecting our standards. Too many are thrust out of this institution who become successes in civil life or come back into the Army to do more creditable work than some graduates. Will not the records show that?"
He was not talking to the wall. So I gave him examples, ending with one about a man who had been cast out for deficiency in one subject, had tutored during the year of absence, and had come back to stand finally at graduation number eight in a class of one hundred and sixty-four.a
"Precisely," he went on, with thanks in his eyes for the specific example. "I am confident many more could have achieved the same result had they been given the opportunity. The new cadets enter here variously prepared, and we treat them as if they were already reduced to a common denominator. We apply the same mechanism to all, inflexibly. You and I p117 have seen naturally bright men wallowing in the bottom of the class through the lack of preparation. We have seen the contrary — comparatively dull men rise to the upper regions of the class purely through erudition. The lack of thorough grounding, I feel sure, is rarely the fault of the boy. Has your office found that certain parts of the country and schools give better preparation than others?"
I told him that a study of entrance examinations showed a marked difference of standards in various sectors. From some the papers were backward in math and almost illiterate in English, whereas from others the answers were almost collegiate. Naturally, the sector which had high-standard schools had a fine record of graduates whose standings were creditable. Also, certain private prep schools gave excellent accounts of themselves.
He pushed his chin up and contemplated the corner of the ceiling.
"In a sense," he said in low tones, "we are favoring the boy who has had the advantage of living in a certain part of the country or who has had money enough to attend a select prep school. It's a sort of intellectual snobbery when we pride ourselves on the democracy of the Corps. A gross inconsistency." He turned on me, in that swift way he had of winnowing facts, and asked, "What has been the attrition of classes in the past?"
I told him it was my recollection they had lost between 25 and 50 per cent of their number before graduation.
"Unthinkable!" He began pacing the length of the room and rapping out his clipped enunciation. "Not only do we do injustice to the individual cadet, but we shirk our duty to the Government, which has a heavy investment in these lads. The departure of any one of them means a loss of salary already paid and less returns for the same continuing overhead. To discard them after six months, a year or more, means a loss of thousands of dollars of the taxpayers' money. It's a wanton neglect of our duty to send these lads adrift without making every effort to mold them into worthy cadets and officers."
p118 He was silent for a moment and then went on.
"The past shows we are getting rid of them not because they are incompetent in many cases, but because they're insufficiently prepared. When a boy from a country high school is slapped in the face with eight or ten theorems a day, he hasn't the facility to master so much in a short time, even though he has passed the more leisurely entrance examinations. He becomes nervous and frightened. When he sees the marks growing lower each week end, he becomes confused. He grows more afraid of failure and what he construes as disgrace before his family and friends than of the barking yearlings. We produce in the classroom a mental hazing akin to the physical one we are trying to eradicate. That sort of cold, Prussian assault has no place in the instructional process."
His last sentence made me feel he was groping for a remedy. So I related some of my experiences. Since I had served as an instructor for two details at the Academy, I was able to give him a little picture of what a few of us had tried. We had discovered there were some plebes floundering in the goats who were anything but stupid, but who had had such bad grounding they couldn't tell a preposition from a composition. Through promptings of pity and the thrill of successful teaching, we invited them to our quarters, where we did a little relaxed coaching and were able to pull them through. Couldn't high-standing first classmen do the same thing for the floundering plebe?
It was electric the way MacArthur would flash onto an idea and forthwith expand or explode it.
"Of course it would be as good for the tutor as the tutored! It would be contributing to the development of the man about to graduate in accordance with our purpose of throwing on him added responsibility. It would promote his teaching ability, which is practically leadership ability. Talk it over with the Com and work out a provision which would allow a plebe to request the services of a coach, and cause the Com to call for volunteers among the first classmen."
We not only wrote that into the regulations, but much more p119 which was to have a salutary effect upon the morale, efficiency and practices of the cadet, to say nothing of saving to the Government. However, before we introduced a single novelty, we rid the book of disturbing minutiae, vacuous preachments and obsolete restrictions, such as wearing a beard and riding in a carriage. Then we started on the most unconventional and sweeping changes since the innovations of Sylvanus Thayer one hundred and four years before. The whole effort was pointed not only toward throwing more responsibility on the cadet, but in supplanting much of the old kick-in‑the‑pants demerit system of forced discipline, with self-reliance, inspiration and appeal to produce a self-discipline.
a John Scott Smylie, Class of 1915; at the time, he was teaching at the Academy. He was gone from the Academy only five months rather than a full year: but it can be considered a year since he should have been Class of 1914.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
History of West Point
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY
if its URL has a total of one *asterisk.
If the URL has two **asterisks,
the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use.
If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 19 Jun 16