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This webpage reproduces an article in
American Medicine
Vol. 1 No. 12 (June 22, 1901), pp558‑562

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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p558 The Nervous Exhaustion due to West Point Traininga

by
Dr. Charles E. Woodruff,

of Fort Riley, Kansas.
Surgeon, United States Army.b

In about three-fourths of the Congressional districts, selections to West Point cadetships are made by competitive examinations; generally there are a large number of competitors, and the successful candidates must be very able and well trained in their studies. Every year there are thus sent to the academy a very intelligent set of men, the pick of the United States. It is reasonable to expect that a large proportion of them should become famous or at least men of some note and success in life. The fact is the very reverse occurs, for it seems as though the best way to extinguish a man is to send him to West Point. Of the hundreds of able men admitted, so few are ever heard of again that civilians constantly ask, "What becomes of all these picked men if they are the choice of the United States?" "What is it the academy does to them to snuff out their abilities or keep their lights under a bushel?" Of those who enter the academy about one-half graduate, so that the weeding out should leave a remarkably picked set of men who should accomplish much in their life-work.

We must assume that the methods of selection really secure brainy men, but we can positively deny that such examinations secure the best, for it is a fact that intellectual traits like quickness and memory, by means of which boys compete in their studies, are not those upon which success in life depends. The real basis for success is mental energy combined with a good balance of faculties resulting in correct judgments. Great men not infrequently are noted as having been poor students at college. The quickness and brightness so necessary at West Point are really undesirable qualities, for they are apt to make the mind act too quickly for correct reasoning, and they are the leading characteristics of a large class of men who have little staying powers. The nerve-tissue is flabby, easily fatigued, and wears out in a few years. Some of these men are wonderfully brilliant and capable of considerable mental effort, but only for a few years. Finally, quickness and brilliancy may exist in degenerate minds of a very low order, and boys of this class can enter the academy, but they never stay long. So we are perfectly justified in denying that the candidates are all of the proper material for success in life, though we cannot deny their generally high average of ability. Many graduates of West Point have occupied the highest positions, have proved to be great men and have reflected great honor on their school. They have been great leaders in statesmanship, business, war, art and literature, and the roll of honor is a long one, of which every graduate is justly proud. The point in question is that the roll of prominent names shows too small a percentage. Did the present methods secure the best men, the Engineer Corps, receiving only the cadets of the highest standing, should have at least 90% of noted men. Edward Everett Hale said: "If you should take 12 prize medal men from Harvard and put them in a sinking ship they would all drown through inability to construct a raft." They are mental sponges capable of great absorption but not able to produce. They are generally outstripped by others, as in the famous Yale class of 1837.

Educators give many reasons for the alleged poor results of West Point training. Among others may be mentioned the fact that military students do not work voluntarily, but are forced to it to secure the prized commission in the army. They cannot do otherwise than consider the curriculum a necessary evil when they see those who fail at the academy and who through political influence secure civil appointments to the army, subsequently succeed in their profession as well as graduates. In civil schools the student wants the course of instruction by means of which he is to succeed in life.

It is an error to rate scholarship as military ability. Some successful military leaders have been noted for their ignorance of general topics and hatred of books. Nevertheless it takes so much study to master the details of military science that the majority of its great professors have, like Napoleon and von Moltke, been hard students.

In the late war there was a remarkable absence of West Pointers among the ranking officers, but in this there is no reflection on the academy, as it was due to an unavoidable circumstance. After the civil war a large number of young volunteers who had the requisite influence were given commissions in the army, as there were not enough graduates for more than a small number of the vacancies. These volunteers had by gradual promotion just reached the upper grades, so that nearly all the field officers and the higher officers in the staff were of this class. West Pointers who graduated after 1865 were therefore in subordinate positions.

The training of the cadet in subordination and obedience must also be taken into account, for this dwarfs and even stifles the mental faculties needed in aggressive initiative. Great military leaders, full of energy and new ideas, are, as a rule, undisciplined and insubordinate in the lower grades. Too much training in blind obedience unfits for independent command and excellent subordinates are apt to become moral cowards when thrown on their resources. West Pointers explain that their training fits them only for subordinate positions where, as good soldiers, they should have no ideas beyond the intelligent execution of orders. This is why civilians and outsiders, who have never been subjected to the mentally destructive effects of discipline, occasionally spring to the front and take the lead where well-trained soldiers fall.

There are two other reasons for the absence of expected achievements on the part of West Point graduates. In the first place, promotion falls to those who live longest, whether they are fit for higher duties or not. There is no incentive to work, and neither civilian nor military officer will work unless he can secure the rewards of work. In the second place, men with new ideas who suggest changes in existing things, are quite apt to be insubordinate and sooner or later get into trouble. They may be considered even pestiferous and it takes them but a short time to learn that they are more conformable if they make no suggestions.

A critical review of the methods of study and of the life of the cadet, leaves no doubt in the mind of the physician skilled in such matters, that many of the failures we have mentioned are due to nervous exhaustion caused by the unwholesome high pressure of their four years of toil. This matter of school routine has occupied the attention of physicians and educators for many years, and the discussions have crystallized the opinion that former methods have been of great harm, and that modern schools must ease up the strain on the delicate nervous system in childhood and youth. A few years ago, Dr. E. Stuver, of Fort Collins, Col., addressed queries to many physicians and educators, and his paper is a basis for argument for it gives the opinions of practical educators who see the harm done and of practical physicians who are called upon to treat the minds and nerves wrecked by the teachers.

The nervous system of a child is an exceedingly delicate mechanism which is easily disordered. He requires wholesome, easily digested food, plenty of fresh air and sunshine, frequent opportunities for unrestrained exercise, frequent periods of relaxation for rest, frequent p559changes in work and plenty of sleep. It is known that the nervous system retains its infantile traits until the twenty-fifth year, at which time we are accustomed to call it stable. West Point cadets are all under the age of stability and the rules governing the training of young children apply to them with equal force, though of course in modified form. It is safe to apply to West Point the consensus of opinion of educators in the lower grades to determine the faults of that system.

The answers to Dr. Stuver's questions brought out at the very start the different points of view of the two classes of men — the teachers who do the damage and the physicians who recognize it. To the question, "Do you think our comprehensive course of study is best calculated to develop the highest physical and intellectual powers of the child?" 29 educators said no, 18 were doubtful, and 15 said yes, but of the 35 physicians who answered, 32 said no, only 1 was doubtful, and but 2 said yes. We will probably find the same differences of opinion between line officers and surgeons as to the damage done by the West Point course.

In the answers to Dr. Stuver's questions there were differences of opinion as to the proper length of time which could be safely devoted to any one recitation, but the tendency was to limit them to 10 or 20 minutes in the primary grades and to 20 or 30 minutes in the grammar grades, teachers varying greatly in their ability to interest the scholars and postpone fatigue. When a child tires it is time to stop, for further effort only injures the brain, as it is accomplished at greater expenditure of force and the impressions are very evanescent. For West Point, therefore, the extreme limit of safety is 1 hour, and the extra half hour is not only wasted but actually injurious, and they would accomplish more with half the recitations. To keep a child of 14 or less, 2 hours on a single recitation is said to be a heartless violation of all mental laws, and we can assert the same of the long recitations at West Point. In addition, the cadet, when through his work at the blackboard, must face about and stand at the military attitude of "attention," which is such an unwholesome strain that they now and then feel faint and have been known to go to hospitals as a result of this exhaustion.c

The child's normal nervous force must have an outlet in motion. When this restlessness was considered wickedness, repression was resorted to and the destruction of the minds of children was not uncommon. There is still much unwholesome restraint, and one has only to watch children as they are dismissed from school to be convinced of the pressure they have been under, for they all seem to explode as soon as they are outdoors, running, screaming, tumbling, and going through their various antics. It is now known that they cannot keep quiet without an effort of the will, which is extremely exhausting, and that unrelieved nerve-pressure causes considerable destruction of nerve-tissue. Hence, in answer to the question as to how often there should be recesses or periods of relaxation, the majority said every hour, one saying every 45 minutes. It is a matter of experience that more work is done with less fatigue, if there is an opportunity every hour for the students to blow off surplus steam by unrestrained childish motion, and the more noise they make the greater the apparent relief. "Children must have their halters taken off, the bars let down, and be turned loose like young colts."

There is a partial compensation at West Point, in that the recitations alternate with periods of study in the rooms. Here there is a relaxation from the rigid attitude of attention of the class-room and the restraints of the instructor's presence, but there is still confinement, necessity of quiet, and a repression which are just as wearing in the long run. Except for a half hour after each meal and a trifle longer on Sundays, the cadet is constantly under an unwholesome, unscientific and exhausting restraint.

Calisthenics and drills require an effort of the will and increase exhaustion instead of relieving it. Teachers and physicians alike recommend frequent relaxation in the open air free of all restraints. What a mistake it is, then, to consider the daily rigid military drills of the cadet a wholesome exercise for boys whose will power has already been strained beyond the safety point. As a daily drill is necessary, it should be considered work, for which there should be periods of relaxation to compensate.

In all colleges there are explosions of nerve force in which the students seem to go "off the handle." They are normal, natural, noisy ways of "blowing off steam," and have more to do with keeping the students healthy than any other college habit. These outbreaks have been notably lessened by the introduction of gymnastics and athletic sport, normal, voluntary and unrestrained methods of relieving nervous tension. All these reliefs are reduced to an unwholesome minimum at West Point and the repression has the result of more exhaustion. It can be denied that the frolic needed in the cadet life will destroy discipline, for it would be just as absurd to claim that the screaming, yelling, howling mob of school children at recess is ruining the public school discipline. The wholesome taste for sport is so starved in the cadet that his mania for extracting fun out of everything is really piteous.

The unwholesome nervous strain of cadet life, with its violation of mental laws, is very ably stated by Lieutenant W. E. Ellis, Fourth U. S. Artillery, in a recent article written in praise of the school. "The amount of work performed by the cadet is prodigious. Scarcely a moment is wasted. Under the rigorous discipline, which taxes mental and physical capacity to the utmost for six days in every week, with only a slight loosening up on the seventh, the West Point cadet is always, barring accident, in perfect physical condition. Many a baseball victory has been won with hardly an hour's preliminary practice during the week, and preparation for the most terrific football struggle has been confined to an occasional hour under the electric light in the riding hall, in addition to brief practice on the plain before breakfast and after drill. From 8:30 in the morning throughout summer, and from 6 in the winter, during the whole 4 years' course, with only a single vacation midway in the course, the unceasing work goes on, until taps sound at 10 in the evening. To illustrate, the astronomical course to which most colleges devote a year's study is covered at West Point in 2½ months, and it is done thoroughly, too, as is proven by the rigid examinations which every cadet must pass to maintain his position in the class."

As "training" is unnatural, exhausting and harmful in many ways, and is the principal factor in shortening the lives of professional athletes, who by the way are notoriously shortlived, we can appreciate the harm done to the cadet by this system. It is surprising to what extremes of unwholesome existence a healthy boy may be subjected without killing him. It is on this account and also by reason of the exceptionally good physique of the cadet at the start, that the damage is hidden. Strains which break the adult only bend the youth.

The above quotation shows that the educational system is one of intense cramming, for the whole course covers 3 times as much ground as any brain can healthfully absorb. In addition the cadets become expert in memorizing for short periods. They can read over certain lessons so intently that they can recite them if asked within an hour, but so soon as they leave the class next day they have forgotten most of it. The length of the daily lessons is so inordinate that no human brain can learn them properly in the required time. This method of using a superficial memory is the best the cadet can do, and it is vicious in every respect.

Of many schools it is said, "Unfortunately, under our cramming, high-pressure methods of education, with the p560frequent examinations and grand-stand plays for public show and approval, children are spurred on and incited to cram and memorize, regardless of the permanent effects of such a course. This sort of work keeps the child in a constant state of worry, anxiety and excitement; the brain is irritated, the vitality lowered and the mind weakened. Under such a system even the brightest and best pupils will lie awake nights and worry over their grades, their examinations and promotions, when never a thought of care on such matters should disturb them."

Graduates of West Point have told me that while at the Academy their nights brought distressing nightmares more often than absolute oblivion. They seemed to have problems floating before them, and they struggled in dreams with work. This means that the overexcited brain-cells refuse to quiet down and that the bloodvessels are still dilated instead of being contracted as in normal sleep, and though parts of the brain may sleep other parts are just as active as when the cadet is awake. No wonder then that they sometimes get up in as exhausted condition as when they retired.

The question of the amount of sleep is an important one, for brain nutrition takes place during this time. Deprivation of sleep is far more destructive of brain tissue than is starvation. At the age of 16, there should be 8¾ hours' sleep for mechanics, but brainworkers must have at least 10 hours. These periods are lessened as we grow older, so that at 24 years of age the minimum is 7¼ hours and the maximum 9¼. Taking an average of all these ages we can affirm without fear of contradiction that the cadet should have 9 hours' sleep, and that some of them should have 10. Yet according to the regulations it is impossible for them to get more than 8 in winter and 7½ in summer. Cadets, no matter how exhausted, are not allowed to go to bed until after the evening study hours, a barbarous custom which compels many of them to sleep in their chairs on occasions when they are too exhausted to study at night.

Some students drink large quantities of coffee to keep them awake. They are spurring on by this stimulant a tired nervous system at the very time the opposite class of drugs is imperatively needed. Sedatives must be used to contract the dilated bloodvessels and to quiet and soothe the irritated nerve-cells into recuperative sleep. It would be a good plan to keep these useless stimulants from the cadet supper-table, and indeed, as such drugs may be very harmful if used in excess before the age of stability, there is scientific reason for keeping them even from the breakfast table. Very little coffee is allowed the German cadet.

It is known that mental energy decreases from the moment of awakening and that the machine seems to run down about the middle of the afternoon, and this is the reason for the siesta of middle life and old age. After a short sleep or "nooning" there is a rise of energy. "Mental work is injurious after dinner," so the greatest damage at West Point probably takes place in the afternoons, when the sufferings of the cadets in their efforts to keep awake are sometimes acute. The Germans are much more humane, for their cadets have a 2 o'clock dinner, after which they are free until 4.30.

It is stated that "nature will not permit a forced brain to sleep;" therefore nightwork is more harmful than any other, for a considerable interval should elapse between study-hour and bedtime, to allow the dilated bloodvessels to contract and the excited brain-cells to quiet down. In certain schools for boys, where night study-hours were abolished, it was found that the boys slept better and somnambulism ceased. The quality of nightwork is also very poor. The majority of errors made by bank clerks are in the afternoons, and it is found to be an economy to shorten the afternoon work.d Experiments in California have been so decisive that home work by the public school pupils is to be abolished by law.

The exact amount of work which a growing brain can do before it becomes exhausted, varies with age and the personal equation. "Sir Edwin Chadwick, from a large number of observations extending over 50 years, came to the conclusion that the limit of effective class teaching was inside of 3 hours, and furthermore, that those children who attended school ½ of the day, and worked at some manual occupation the balance of the time — the half-timers, as they are called — acquired a superior mental activity and outstripped those who devoted their whole time to the regular course of study." Dr. Clement Dukes, physician to Rugby School, estimates the maximum hours of mental work per week which can profitably be expected from a growing brain, as 6 hours at 5 or 6 years of age, gradually increasing to 40 hours at 16 or 17, 45 at 17 to 18, and 50 at 18 or 19. For the West Point cadet an average of 52 hours per week is a very low estimate, and a majority of them put in between 60 and 65 hours, exclusive of the 20 hours or more in which the nervous system is on a strain at rigid drills and other formations. Dr. Duke says that such overstrain results in arrested progress and even in retrogression, "in weakened brain, body and interest," and that the growing brain is actually checked in growth. Many a cadet finds to his dismay that the pace is too rapid, and the academy thus yearly turns out as failures some of its very best material. How much more scientific and sensible is the slower German method in which the cadet's recitations cease at 1 P.M., and where there is freedom from all work after the 2 P.M. dinner until 4.30, after which he drills, a light lunch at 5 and a heavier supper later take up much of the time until the 9.30 bed-hour.

Another cause of exhausting strain is the dread of failure, due to the feeling that there is a special disgrace in this failure. Hundreds of successful civilians would not hide their West Point failure if they knew that the best men are sometimes rejected.e The Sandhurst cadet is not nagged thus, for he is not dismissed until he fails twice in the examinations. The dread of hazing also causes as much, if not more, exhaustion than the actual hazing itself, which usually consists of the pranks boys play upon one another the world over.

A brain used to its utmost 8 hours a day should have a half-holiday twice a week, an extra change every 2 months, and every 6 months a long rest of several weeks. No such ideal being possible at West Point, it is necessary to relax the deadening and exhausting monotony. A British cadet gets 16 weeks' holiday in his course of 18 months; the West Pointer gets 16 weeks in 48 months.

Variety in the work is of as much importance as frequent interruptions, for sameness soon palls and then work can be accomplished only at greater expense. Distasteful work is still worse and the modern educator makes it his business to render work pleasant. The conditions at West Point are unfavorable for such modern ideas, for no one cares whether the cadet is pleased or not. If he fails he goes home and there are hundreds waiting to take his place.f In civil schools, where the income depends upon the success in teaching, the aim is to get as good results as the material permits, and but few fail.g

Now let us consider the known results of the unwholesome high pressure at West Point to prove that it is one of the causes of the extinction of many a graduate. We have already mentioned the difficulty of keeping awake in the evening as one of the symptoms of exhaustion. During afternoon recitations it is generally a struggle if the cadet is not actively occupied, and a dry lecture of a half hour will put most of them to sleep. A student who can not keep awake during a dry lecture of 45 minutes is unfit for study and only damaged by the effort. At the end of the scholastic year those who go into camp literally spend the summer in sleep. Every spare hour is given to slumber and every afternoon will find all asleep who have no duties. Officers, ignorant of nervous p561diseases, do not appreciate this disgraceful state of affairs, for the least desire to sleep in daylight is not healthy and is actually repugnant to the healthy nervous system of youth. In the furlough at the end of 2 years the exhaustion is worse and instead of getting the much needed recreation the average cadet spends the time mostly in sleep. They may be said to average 12 to 15 hours in bed throughout the summer. After the 4 years matters are still worse, another furlough is spent in sleep and it is fully 2 years before the average cadet is rested up, and for many years a few need a siesta upon any unusual exertion. During the academic year not a few cadets are admitted to the hospital for no other reason than exhaustion. It is safe to say that upon graduation fully 9/16 of the cadets are in a condition of profound exhaustion, mentally and physically, so severe indeed that some are unable to join their regiments for several months.

The academy is noted for its excellent discipline, a matter of great pride to its alumni, yet it is safe to say that unless the cadets were kept in this nervous torpor of partial exhaustion, the restraints would be wholly impossible. As a rule they are in a species of mental torpor at drills, going through the exercises in a purely automatic manner.h As before mentioned there are remarkable "breaking out" experiences in all institutions for the young where there is restraint and monotony. In the deadly monotony of West Point there is not enough physical exercise to prevent these explosions, except on rare occasions, and this is proof that there is too much exhaustion of nerve-tissue to permit nerve-force to collect in its natural motor-channels. The average cadet finally sinks into a deplorable condition of mental apathy, with an ever-present fear of failure, closely resembling the first stages of melancholia. The longing to be freed of all restraints and never look into a book again, amounts almost to a mania. Not a few are so broken as to be identically the same as the cases of neurasthenia found after the fortieth year. In youth it is difficult for exertion to be so excessive that repair is wholly impossible, for the will-power is not strong enough. After a certain stage of fatigue, boys simply sleep with their eyes open, partly oblivious to their surroundings. The strong mature will-power may take a man to the breaking point. Yet I have had cases to treat among officers suffering severely from the dozens of symptoms due to the exhaustion of their training; and some scandals have been caused by men of this type.

It is exceedingly rare for a graduate to be able to do any mental work in the first year after graduation, a few can work after 2 or 4 years of rest, but the majority never regain their full mental powers. Few if any are uninjured. The defects of the sufferers are not noticed, for hard mental work is rarely required with the troops, the work being merely routine. I have known the exhaustion mistaken for laziness and the young officer begin his career with a bad reputation. As a rule, the graduates, who after a few years return to West Point as instructors, are completely exhausted by 2 hours' work in the class room. Dr. Duke calls attention to the premature exhaustion of forced brains, and says that "greater staying power and less training is better than excessive training with diminution of vigor."

A dreadful symptom in most graduates is the intense hatred of books — a bibliophobia so intense that the mere mention of study will raise loud protests. Cadets who on entering the school are enthusiastic students are completely weaned of the desires which all other schools seek to cultivate. Knowledge is of such enormous extent, that the students in civil schools are taught that their graduation is the beginning of their work, but the West Pointer looks upon his graduation as the end.

The condition of many graduates is best described as "burnt out" which is scientifically correct, for the oxidations due to exertion are not repaired. When we recollect that mathematical labor causes a greater excretion of wastes than any other,i we can appreciate the rapidity of the burning out in a course essentially mathematical. These studies are the chief culprits, for they take up more time than any other 2 or 3 combined. The waste of invaluable nerve tissue is inexcusable, because nine-tenths of the graduates never have use for more mathematics than what they knew before they became cadets. The course could be cut in one-third its present extent, indeed the St. Cyr cadet trained for infantry or cavalry has no mathematics whatever.j A famous Professor of mathematics said to his class, before a course of lectures, "Gentlemen, to my mind, the most interesting thing about the subject is that I do not see how under any circumstances it can ever be put to any practical use." The same may be said of much of that at West Point.

In their exhausted state, the graduates are in proper condition to contract any infection. If they were as strong as they are supposed to be, so many of them would not fall victims of disease so soon after they go home. They are ripe for alcoholism, which is but a symptom of exhaustion, and a few succumb though nearly all recover before they have become chronics. None of them are fit for tropical service upon graduation for that climate causes increased exhaustion, a condition not appreciated by those who have never served there.k

A writer has stated that "tradition and precedent are the 2 divinities of the military academy, hence it comes that while the world makes giant strides, the military academy is the same yesterday, today and forever." In its methods it is just one century behind the times. It was organized at a time when universities gave courses of instruction of which the modern high school would be ashamed. Its entrance-examination, fixed by law, is about what was needed for a first-class university at a time when there was no public school system. The present candidates, with few exceptions, must brush up in studies which they had dropped several years before. The faculty complain bitterly of the law and demand a higher standard, as at St. Cyr, so they might omit the more elementary studies of the first year or two. They would then introduce subjects taught at the service schools, institutions started by the way, to finish what West Point fails to do. The state of affairs would then be as bad as it is at present.º

The real fault is a system which demands of the human brain 3 times as much as it can do. Instead of trying to crowd more into the course a new course is needed. The last century has seen such a tremendous advance in knowledge that one brain can not possibly absorb more than one little specialty of one profession, and universities now have 20 courses of study where one sufficed a century ago. Likewise military science has grown far beyond the limit of a single brain, and modern armies are composed of specialists, none of whom can possibly learn all the duties of the others. In Europe this is all recognized and their military schools are technical institutions giving a training in the specialties of the science and art of war. We go on after the old method of trying to run all the specialists through the same mould, and the academy fails of being either a preparatory or a technical school along modern lines. Yale has already taken a modern step by reducing the course so that the students can obtain a degree in 3 years.l Life is too short for the old methods.

It seems remarkable also to see officers rushed back to West Point as teachers when they have not the least idea of any of the laws of the science of pedagogy. Without training, it is as useless to expect them to do good teaching as to expect them to do good surgical work, and in addition the old system is perpetuated and its evil intensified. Some of the instructors are so ignorant of methods of teaching that they insist upon verbatim recitations, a method now considered a crime. These faults at conservative West Point are to be expected, for until a decade or so ago, but little time had been given to the p562scientific study of the growing brain. Pedagogy is a new science, but its laws can not be applied to the academy too soon.

The academy has been of more importance than the people generally recognize, for its graduates have been the backbone of our armies in every crisis of our history and Washington knew that they would be. It is then intemperate to argue that it had better be abolished. Its enemies sometimes say that unless it can be remodeled on modern lines, it bids fair to do more harm than good, and that college graduates who have not been "burnt out" and mentally warped, have a better chance of becoming able leaders than the West Pointer too exhausted to take up advanced work. It must be sorrowfully confessed that the history of modern warfare gives some basis for such an opinion. All military science originates in Europe. America is a follower and never has been a leader, except for a short time. Europe does all this with inferior schools, which do not compare with West Point. All foreign visitors are enthusiastic in their praise of the American school. European officers do all this with an education essentially that of a high school, and their subsequent work is evidence that they are more able than Americans. The contrast is the more remarkable because in all other sciences, with a few minor exceptions, American invention leads the world. Indeed, American civilians who make military inventions, sometimes go abroad to have their idea recognized and adopted. We demand of our cadets 3 times as much as any other nation in the world, Sandhurst and Woolwich cadets even leading "a life of luxurious ease compared with that of the West Pointer," and by this overpressure we defeat the very object desired — prolonged usefulness.

The friends of West Point, and every patriot should be its friend, should insist upon the uprooting of evils and modernizing its methods. The first step is to reduce the course to such a point that a fairly good brain can absorb it properly, and this can be done by eliminating the preliminary or elementary studies and the useless advanced ones. The entrance examination will have to cover more ground, and that can be safely done, as the public school system is now competent to prepare the candidates. The academy will then be a technical school and nothing else. All students could follow the same course for 2 years in such branches as are needed in every army position. They should then be commissioned as second lieutenants before they take up their specialties, a system adopted, so it is said, by Russia. This would be by and large a modification of what we sometimes do after the 4 years' course. There is even no objection to sending some of these 2‑year men to medical schools, as they do in the German Army in a modified way. Ordnance, engineer, and artillery lieutenants could then be given 2 years of instruction which would be of no earthly use to the line lieutenants. The latter could be given a short course — say of 8 months — and then sent to their regiments. It has even been suggested to limit appointments to college graduates, but to give them as prizes for scholarship would bring a worse class of neurotics than the present method.

To commission cadets as second lieutenants after 2 years work would remove very much of the nervous strain of the present course, providing they had a good vacation each summer, and more holidays. It also would correct one of the most ridiculous conditions in our service. A soldier can obtain his commission after 2 years of easy work, but the cadet must wait 4 years and do a hundred times the work exacted of the soldier. No nation in the world makes it so easy for the soldier and at the same time so difficult for the cadet to enter the commissioned ranks. Very many other advantages would result from a reduced course, but they do not concern us here, though we might mention the increase in the number of graduates, a practical matter of much importance, now that the enlarged army calls for so many more technically trained men than it ever has before. It would be quite practicable to send the infantry and cavalry graduates to their separate technical schools where they should be joined by the officers appointed from the ranks or civil life. By these means the capacity of the school would be doubled, its graduates as well educated as they are at present, and the scientific corps supplied with better men, and all the graduates would have greater staying powers than they now have. The best military schools in the world are those of Russia, for they are based upon modern scientific mental laws. Every means is taken to avoid mental and physical fatigue, and the methods of mental and physical culture are superb. Their great aim is to turn into the army, officers of great endurance. We do the very opposite at present, and we can afford to take a lesson from this great, virile, and newest of world powers.m

The academy must abolish the mistaken system of rejecting the cadets, who, though very able, are not possessed of the unwholesome and abnormal qualities of quickness and brightness. It is stupid to argue that all of that half who cannot keep the pace would not make good officers — they are selected with too much care for such a supposition. These rejects, by the way, are better fitted for tropical service than the more neurotic who succeed at West Point. By retaining them and by the above system of shorter courses of study, the academy could supply 3 times the number of officers it now does, there would be no need for an increase in the cadet corps and Congressmen would make appointments every 2 years instead of 4. Another reason for this increase in the output of graduates lies in the fact that 2 years is the extreme limit for tropical service, unless the officer does duty in a cool building and is never exposed to the climate by service in the field. Regiments which stay there longer than this limit will require surplus officers to take the place of those recuperating at home — a system used by foreign armies, much needed by us already, and one which we will have to adopt or the troops will be perpetually short of officers.

In European armies paresis was formerly called a military disease on account of its frequency among professional soldiers. The causes were undoubtedly the rapid pace at which they lived and the awful nervous strains of frequent warfare. Drunkenness has disappeared in great part from our service and field duty was not common until recently, so that paresis has not been common in America, but unfortunately its place has been taken by neurasthenia, which now ranks as a military disease and is probably more common than in brain-workers in civilian life. It is the real cause for quite numerous retirements under other diagnosis. The causes are partly idleness and the nagging of military discipline, so intensely irritating in certain commands, as well as the strains of the cadet life. How important, then, it is for us to so manage our cadets that their nervous systems are strengthened to be able to stand this strain and develop great staying powers, even if they know less of the mathematics of wave motions.


Thayer's Notes:

a Several general criticisms of this paper are in order, and I doubt very much whether it could ever be published in an American medical journal today. The most glaring flaw is that the author has made bald asseverations of all kinds, with not a single supporting citation: the most entertaining of which is "When we recollect that mathematical labor causes a greater excretion of wastes than any other . . ."! We are given figures, for example, of how much nightly sleep people should get at various ages, precise to the quarter of an hour, with not a shred of anything to back it up; and we are told all kinds of things of an anecdotal nature that cry out, in a scientific journal certainly, for statistics that would confirm their truth in the first place. Cadets are compared and even more or less assimilated to children, and what is observed of small children is extrapolated to 20‑year‑olds. We are told that young people are fragile, and in the next breath that "Strains which break the adult only bend the youth." We are told that cadets don't really want to be at the academy, merely being terrified to fail: but admission to the Academy is in itself a fairly arduous process, entirely voluntary on the part of the candidate; etc.

One intelligent reader to whom I showed this paper suggested, dubiously but seriously, that it might have been a joke; on balance though, and regrettably, I have to conclude it wasn't. As will be seen from the note below, our author was a crackpot.

At the same time, some of his points are valid, and reforms, especially those by Superintendent Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.MacArthur (1919‑1922), would address them: for example, cadets now get the month of June off in addition to the December break, and the intramural sports program for which the Academy is famous, besides its many other benefits, helps blow off steam.

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b Though an Army officer, Dr. Woodruff was a graduate of the Naval Academy — which is very likely another piece of the puzzle; along with several other clues provided by his obituary in the Transactions of the American Therapeutic Society, 1917, p28:

Charles E. Woodruff
by Thomas E. Satterthwaite, M.D., Sc.D, LL.D,
New York.

Charles E. Woodruff, who joined this society in 1914, and died June 13, 1915, was born in Philadelphia, Pa., on October 2, 1860.

Graduating from the Naval Academy at Annapolis, in 1883, and from Jefferson College, in 1886, he entered the U. S. Navy in the latter year and within twelve months the U. S. Army. On his retirement, in 1913, he held the brevet rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. Two military medals for meritorious service were awarded him.

Colonel Woodruff will be best remembered in scientific circles as an anthropologist and as a sanitarian. Prolonged service in the Philippines furnished him the opportunities for his well known work relating to the effects of a tropical climate on the white races, which was embodied in a separate volume. Out of this was subsequently evolved his Medical Ethnology. But The Expansion of Races was probably the most important of his books; it is said to have been the most valuable contribution to anthropology since Darwin's Origin of Species. Industriously collecting and coordinating scattered data, he brought them before his readers in a simple, intelligible, and entertaining form. Every man, whether physician or layman, who is interested in racial problems as they bear on health, wealth, and good government, should familiarize himself with Colonel Woodruff's broad survey of these topics. Other valuable material that came from his pen was contained in upward of seventy monographs on subjects bearing on military medicine, camp sanitation, and eugenics; of the latter he made a special study.

But devotion to duty was his undoing, for the enervating climate of the Philippines undermined an otherwise vigorous physique, compelling him to resign from the service at the comparatively early age of fifty-three years, after only twenty-six years of army life.

Colonel Woodruff was a broad humanitarian, endowed by nature with a keen, logical, and inquiring mind, bent on finding light where hitherto there had been darkness. Firm in his convictions, he was equally zealous in upholding them, though tolerant of the opposition that confront new ideas. Those who differed with him were always treated with consideration, even with courtesy. It was easy, therefore, for him to win the admiration and command the respect of his co-workers. In the front rank of scientists there is now a gap. Unfortunately, his stay was so brief that few of us had the opportunity of knowing him well. His intimates have paid this tribute to him: He was a sincere and faithful friend.

Woodruff's interest in eugenics is typical of the period — see for example his contemporary Margaret Sanger the founder of Planned Parenthood. His writings on the subject are for the most part forgotten, and the subject itself is now viewed as a dead end. In something titled "The Complexion of Jews", for example, he characterized the Jew as a "harmful parasite and national disease", and according to Robert Michael, A Concise History of American Antisemitism (2005), he saw the persecution of Jews as a "process of disinfection."

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c Short of extraordinarily hot weather, illness, or other peculiar circumstances, the solution to this one is simple, and today at least is taught every recruit: don't lock your knees.

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d I have heard — but haven't confirmed — that during World War II, in the interest of increasing wartime output, the British authorities raised the work hours several times, eventually to find that contrary to their expectations total production peaked at about 56 hours a week if I remember the figure, actually declining after that, as people were asked to work more.

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e West Point is a tough place, and one with a very specific mission: as MacArthur put it, to win America's wars. There should not be, then, any special disgrace in failure at the academy; those who fail there are merely unsuited for that particular life.

Now while a young person is a member of the Corps, it is firmly right to stress that they succeed, and to discourage failure in every possible way; but for those who leave it might be good to provide a short separation course: they may not have succeeded at West Point, but they should be affirmed in their civilian identity and their value to American society. The fact remains that even those who for one reason or another leave the Academy are still among this country's best and brightest, and that a lot of taxpayer money has been spent to get them that far; a small increment would be in the national interest, if it could prevent further waste of human potential from the shock and loss of self-esteem that often mark the departing cadet for years afterward.

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f The reader should not get the idea that when a cadet leaves the Academy without graduating, a slot is immediately created. The departing cadet's Class decreases by attrition all the way to graduation; no additional cadetships open up in the entering Class to make good the loss. In short, no one takes the place of a departing cadet.

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g It hasn't taken long for this superficially good idea to fall victim to cynical calculation, with disastrous effects. As of writing, it has already long been realized in many colleges that income need no longer depend upon the success in teaching, and that the aim need not be to get good results: but merely to make sure that few fail, which is done by lowering standards. Combined with the baneful effects (for once) of democracy, which has fostered the notion that merit is undemocratic, this has led to high schools that pass everyone, high school degrees that mean nothing, college being required for the most relatively menial jobs merely as insurance to the employer that an applicant can read and write; and college graduates of far less attainments and with a much poorer level of knowledge and general culture than fifty and a hundred years ago. Since many of these graduates have themselves gone on to teach at such universities (many of them now really vocational and technical schools), the last twenty or thirty years have seen an explosive efflorescence of politically popular quasi-disciplines: "gender studies" and the like.

As our writer points out, the trap is not something the Military Academy was likely to fall into, and, along with the top tier of American universities, still by and large the best in world, it hasn't done so.

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h That's exactly what drill is designed to achieve: many things, on which the life of the future officer and those under his command, need to become thoroughly automatic.

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i I've been unable to find any source for, or substantiation of, this unexpected statement. The image it sets up of people who work in such fields as tensor calculus or topology is distracting, to say the least.

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j I will hardly posit cause and effect, but France has lost every war she's fought back to 1856.

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k Our writer is saved only by his ambiguity: Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.George W. Goethals, Class of 1880, achieved superb results in driving thru the Panama Canal under horrific tropical conditions over a number of years — but he wasn't fresh out of West Point, although I don't really think that's what Col. Woodruff meant. Woodruff himself, not a West Point graduate, seems to have died of tropical disease or its consequences (see above).

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l The experiment was short-lived; today, at any rate, Yale's undergraduate course lasts four years.

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m Not twenty years after our author wrote, Russia was the only major Allied country to buckle to the Germans in World War I in a total collapse; far from being a virile new power, events would prove conclusively that the Russian régime of 1901 was senescent, corrupt, and ripe for the fall.


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