Short URL for this page:
The contentions that the Supe was turning the Academy into an athletics arena were mild murmurs compared to outcries later. The inauguration of a mass athletics program had held out the inducement of an end to cutting in on academic time and the tug-of‑war between coaches and professors. But when MacArthur went exploring the holy precincts of the pedagogical duchies, and seeking to modernize and broaden the unbending old order, there was nothing to offer the Old Guard in return. His visits became cheeky snooping and his efforts to alter a jot, unprovoked aggression. What right had any Supe to question the true-and‑tried practices of a century, much less a Supe who was also a youth with fantastic ideas and acted impulsively? He was an interloper and dictator. At best, he was dangerous to the very fundamentals of West Point.
After a visit to the Academic Buildings, he asked me, "How much do the professors know about similar courses to theirs in civilian colleges and universities? Do they visit other schools? Are they interested in what goes on there?"
I told him Colonel Holt, head of the English Department, the only nongraduate professor, a Yale A. B. and Ph. D. went over to New Haven quite often to talk with his old friends, Phelps, Canby, Pierce and MacCracken; and Colonel Carter, head of the Philosophy Department, had taken a course at M. I. T. But I had known of no others who had exposed themselves to civilian education.
"It's a condition I surmised as I went around," he sighed. "It's the old narrow view which has grown narrower through the years. The professors are so secure, they have become set and smug. They deliver the same schedule year after year with the blessed unction that they have reached the zenith in education. Nothing can be better than the wares in their hermetically sealed compartments. They would be shocked to be told they p89 were as progressive as the American Indian in his tepee. But what have they added or improved since I was a cadet?
"Possibly they are not blamable. What need has any of them to pull himself up by his own boot straps from his swivel chair? He couldn't conceive of any improvement on what he already considers perfection. He can retain his highly responsible and regarded position by merely going along. Competition with other chairs of other institutions, promotion to be sought and studied for, or fears from the big sticks from deans, presidents, trustees or regents, are foreign to his even life. Unlike the teacher in civilian institutions, he need not stir his inventiveness and ingenuity. He has become so imbued with his divine right of office he needn't budge from his sage palace."
Where, I thought, did he gain facts for such a summing up? I could understand his keen analysis of the military. But how could he, who from his past should have been a narrow product of a narrow school, obtain this breadth of erudition? How had he become a sort of Erasmus to come over the mountains and start a renaissance of his own? We young progressives, who had been to college, had known this condition and talked about it in undertones. But we had had a longer time at the Academy, more chance to see from within and actually teach in a department. Here was a man fresh from the field of battle.
My surprise over his uncanny insight was soon followed by a doubt whether there were any possibility of effecting a radical change in the curriculum or academic procedure. I felt he couldn't realize the solidity of the rocks in his way, which the Old Guard would cement.
"Under the competition," he went on, "between and within colleges and universities there must have been constant improvement from year to year, both in the manner and content of instruction. There has had to be such in everything else in America. And I am unable to see how the educational world is any exception. But we are the exception. We have no competition, no individual effort or incentive to get on. If we do well what has been done all along, that is enough. Our professors p90 and instructors can go merrily and contentedly on assuring that there is nothing more they can learn, while out there education in all its phases is doubtless going ahead. We are missing many boats. If we are going to design a curriculum of maximum effectiveness, we must in all conscience reap what is pertinent to our purposes from outside progress. We will be reprehensible if we immure ourselves longer in this fortress against modern betterment."
Even I was taken aback by the wholesale idea of importing the concepts of civilian education within the inviolate cloisters of West Point. With my background of four years of college, I had been so impregnated with the preachments at the Academy, stating that the standards and practices were a sort of immaculate conception, and that it was beneath us to import imitations from the heathen educational world.
"It is not possible," he went on, "for any one individual to circulate through various institutions and amass the facts necessary. There would be neither time nor practicality. Each head of a department should see for himself firsthand what improvements are applicable. We can at least have emissaries sent into this unexplored region."
"But how," I queried, "can you get them to go?"
"Chief, you sound one of them out. Ask him how he'd like to have a vacation at government expense to one of our colleges or universities. Do it without revealing fully what I have in mind."
I sounded out the most ensconced member as if the idea had originated with me. He looked at me as if I'd lost my mind or were joking. He didn't even answer.
When I told MacArthur, he blinked for a second over his smile. "It looks as though they'll have to be pried some way from their swivel chairs. Have I the right to issue such orders?"
"I believe," I said, "if you request the War Department to do so, it will comply. It usually tries to do what the Superintendent wants. That kind of order should carry more authority."
I didn't add that Washington would bear part of the brunt p91 of the furor which the orders would produce. I think we both realized the reaction.
"Bon!" he said to my suggestion. "You sound out each professor. Put the question hypothetically. If he were to visit a college or university, which one would he choose?"
It was a pretty touchy inquiry for young me to pose to the Old Guard. I realized why the Supe couldn't very well ask it, because it would swell the importance and scope of his intention and cause direct objections and argument which would not only be unseemly but intensify the hostility.
Some of the professors told me at once their preferences. Others said they'd have to think over the matter, and two said it made no difference. They asked all sorts of questions. "What's the Supe up to now?" — "Is he trying to get rid of us for a while?" — "Is this a way to belittle us, to show civilian institutions we're not as good as they are?" — "We've been able to beat them for over a hundred years. What's so different now?"
Wading through their questions and trying to be noncommittal, I finally got the preferences.
When I told MacArthur, he uttered his "Bon!" and said further, "Draft a request to the Department for orders for each professor to visit the institution of his preference for one month. Also prepare letters for my signature to the heads of the institutions concerned. Tell them of our intentions and approximate times of arrival of the professors. I think when our intellectual hermits are given welcome as visiting statesmen, our little coup d'état will lose some of its sting."
There were real stings when the orders arrived. The Old Guard to a man buzzed into the Supe's office. "A whole month?" He could understand a week or so, but that long an absence right in the middle of the school year? How would the department get along while he was gone? It would leave a gap in a schedule planned months ahead. And the committees at work on co‑ordination and the return to the old curriculum would be delayed that much.
Altogether, their belligerent attitude more than indicated p92 that they felt this was just another blast by the plotters in Washington, with whom MacArthur was now in league. From the side comments I heard, their fury wasn't aroused so much over the compulsory jaunt as that they hadn't been fully consulted. Athletics were strictly under the Superintendent. The direct order there was excusable. But now the Supe was encroaching boldly on the academic side. He was not sitting at the feet of the Gamaliels and begging their leanings before he made these unschooled moves. He probably wouldn't have listened to them anyway. The long unbroken chain of consultation had its first link smashed. Their pride and prestige were hit by the smashing. To their remonstrances, MacArthur smiled but without gloating.
"They seem to be the orders," he admitted, "I'm responsible."
"Well," he breathed to me after one of the oral assaults, "they take it hard. They act as if I were casting them into outer darkness. I'm confident they cannot help but be interested in what they'll find, and flattered by the attention paid them. There will also be a good by‑product. They will realize for the first time that they are not indispensable. They will give their associate and assistant professors a chance for leadership and work on the new curriculum. We'll have trained understudies in case anything happens to the professors, and fresh minds to offer suggestions for future needs."
The replies from the heads of colleges and universities were warm and welcoming, with a tincture of surprise that West Point was coming out of its shell.
The reactions of our professors when they returned were less indignant at having been forced into unknown territory. The faces of the progressives were shining, and those of the Old Guard, at least, were not as distressed as on leaving. All agreed they had been treated with the utmost kindness, and that all whom they had met, had exerted themselves to be of the utmost service. The younger members of the Board were enthusiastic; and although the older ones admitted it wasn't bad, there was a strong indication it was all unnecessary expense, p93 and they had learned little. The fact that their departments had run along as smoothly as they had under their guidance was a bitter pill for some. Their egos had again been assailed.
But egos or not, MacArthur stuck to his purpose, which was fortified by the enthusiastic reports of some of the progressives over the manner in which they had been stimulated and the material they had gained. He informed the Board that the visits had been so productive and successful, he intended to make it a regular yearly practice for each professor to go to an institution other than the places previously visited. He thought it would be a good plan, too, for the members to familiarize themselves with the new Army installations throughout the country so that they would know what was going on in the service and possibly relate their subjects practically to the future. It might be well also to look around in the civilian institutions for possible lecturers who would come to the Academy and deliver inspirational talks without interference with the schedule.
The lectures hitherto had been few and far between, usually delivered as occasion happened to prompt. They had not been a part of the schedule.
This dictum was too much for one of the Old Guard. He rose at Board meeting and, in pained tones, showed how the West Point curriculum had prospered because the recitations were individual and not based on the careless, smattering notebook affairs the universities had to resort to. The plan for outside lectures was a dangerous innovation, which might well increase. It would rob the Point of the thoroughness of study and recitation that can come only when there is time and opportunity for each man.
Of course, MacArthur's proposition was misunderstood. All he desired were a few well-regulated shots in the arm, without interference with the precious section-room1 system or schedule. I am inclined to believe the professor knew at bottom what was meant, but since it was unfeasible to question p94 authority, he jumped on something which had apparent logic, so as to show by his manner how displeased he was with all the changes and the disregard of the Board's advice.
When he sat down, MacArthur looked as if no ideas had occurred to him, and kept silent. I could feel a thick umbrage in the assembly which made the dim room more awesome than ever.
1 The class room which held a maximum of eleven cadets for each recitation and allowed for thorough teaching of each individual.
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: 18 Jun 16