Short URL for this page:
The set of his jaw indicated he didn't underestimate the amount of obstruction, but I was confident he couldn't have estimated its type.
While I was admiring his moral courage, I was fearful of the consequences to him. As part of a great team in Europe, he had successfully fought an enemy in the open, armed with palpable weapons. All by himself could he do the same against hidden foes armed with covert words? I couldn't describe to him the peculiar hindrances which would be laid in his path. It was a kind of thing he'd have to experience firsthand. Especially would I be unable to convey to him the strength of the stoutest blockade — the older members of the Academic Board, whom some of us called the "Old Guard." The younger members were, in general, progressives, I felt would not seriously oppose reforms and, as I was to learn later, would enthusiastically aid him. But it was the Old Guard who, by long tenure, held top power and prestige.
For a year and a half, I had, because I was Adjutant, sat as its secretary without vote. I had been on the sidelines as a listener to their deliberations and decisions. The pattern was so definite, I could predict without mental strain how each one would vote.
In looking back now over eight years in which I have since served with two universities, as well as observed others, I found no group so powerful and deeply entrenched.
Seven of the dozen members of the Board were fixtures by law until they were sixty-four, unless they beat their wives in public or caroused in Times Square. Four of them constituted the Old Guard. Foreign to them as a bull fight in Spain, were wire-pulling, graduate degrees for promotion, textbook writing for recognition, radio broadcasting, toadying to Prexy or Dean to go up another rung, or any of the other recognizable p36 methods of faculty stealth. It wasn't that they were superior men. None of that sort of skirting was necessary or practicable. Away off in Washington, the government set their salaries, status and promotion to such an extent that even the Supe had no control over their solid entrenchment. As they saw all the other personnel come and go, and exercised complete direction of their instructors, they naturally assumed the prerogatives of oldest settlers, guardians and controllers of the fortunes of the Academy.
Superintendents had contributed to this domination. Since the members were sort of oracles on what had happened "ten years ago," the new incumbent would seek out several of them who ordinarily were contemporaries or classmates. Once having established a confidential relationship over the conduct of things in general at the Academy, the Supes largely became the instruments of the Old Guard.
To make the going rougher for the new Supe, his immediate predecessor, who had been a long-time companion and neighbor of the older professors, had formed what MacArthur, inadvertently or purposely, called a "Privy Council."
The Old Guard was in its most inflexible state when the "youngster" arrived to take the helm. Sore and chagrined over the floggings by the War Department, they combined all the sensitiveness of a committee of Congress, the stiffness of the priests of the Sanhedrin, and the security of the judges of the Supreme Court.
Over this tightly knit group MacArthur must, by regulations, conduct the meetings as chairman. How would so young a man preside fittingly over these patriarchs? How would a comparatively unschooled novitiateº even understand the phrases of experienced educators? How could he overcome their resistance to even a minor change? And what kind of blowup would there be at even the suggestion of any reverse of the old order? And, to cap all, how would he act, knowing five of the oldest members had been either professors or instructors of his when he was a cadet?
Having seen for over a year how nicely rugged these members p37 were, I had a sense of "lamb to the slaughter" about the new Supe.
When the time came, I asked if it would suit him for me to call a meeting that day.
"Academic Board," he answered, his face lighting up with expectancy. "Anything important?" he asked, ignoring my question as if it were already answered.
When I told him it was mostly routine, he asked, "What time?" as if I were the one to set it. I named the hour, he said "Bon!" with no more nervous satisfaction than if I'd been talking about the weather. There wasn't even the tapping of a toe or the drumming of a finger. If there was a trace of any emotion it was a welcoming look in the corners of his eyes.
According to custom, I notified him after all the members had taken their seats in the awesome room. As he swung in, they rose and stood at attention. On their faces was every expression, from tense anticipation by the younger members to resigned endurance by the elders. He was quick, before he was entirely through the doorway, to call, "Be seated, gentlemen, please."
In his chair he smiled around at each one as if greeting guests attending his party. In return, he received everything from grin to grimace.
"Well, Chief, what's first on the agenda?" he asked, as if he'd been sitting there complacently for years.
There wasn't the slightest catch or false front in his voice. But when he used the title of "Chief," there were turnings of heads, pressed lips and raised eyebrows.
The various committees reported principally on the curriculum, showing how they were adapting it to the curtailed personnel with every attention given to the return to the old four‑year regime.
It wasn't until the necessary business was over that MacArthur uttered an idea of his own. Even then he undertook no declarative sentence. Squaring around, he addressed each member in turn, firing the same kind of rapid-fire questions he had used with me. He covered everything in each department from p38 content to procedure, making no comments on the replies. Because of his speed, some of the answers were as stumbling as mine had been, and the tones of the members indicated everything from pleasant compliance to grudging reluctance. But through all the moods I could detect wonder and admiration over the storehouse of knowledge and the facility of expression which could produce such queries.
Everything passed easily until he asked Professor A. how his department was related to Professor B.'s? Was there any planned co‑operation between them? Did the cadet taking trigonometry know how the parts of his subject would help him in engineering?
I could feel and see the stiffening of mental and physical backs. This young man was dangerous. In his position he could upset the whole return to normalcy. It would take skill and determination to thwart him.
In the stillness that followed, with the reds and blues slanting in from cloistering windows and the wooden faces of past heroes gazing down through the stillness, I watched the disturbed and nonplussed expressions of the Old Guard. I could think of nothing but a picture back home of a Boy confounding the doctors in the Temple.
The reactions were plain. The Supe was overstepping. Such interference was unheard of. No one ever dared to dip down into the department of another. Each member owned his own academic castle as much as his own home. And as for suggestions from without about changes within, it was heresy and deterioration.
Breaking the tension, one of the older colonels rose with dignity and, formally, in grinding tones, addressed the chair. He related in detail, and with suppressed anguish, the various catastrophes which had stricken the Academy and caused the demise of the old order. He delivered the word "old" as one would speak of a revered grandfather just passed away. He delineated how, against superhuman odds, the Board had been struggling to resurrect some semblance of the former masterpiece which had been wrought with so much pains and brilliancy p39 through the years. But at every turn, its forward advance had been thwarted by some upsetting edict of higher authority. Any further encroachments, interferences, or even inspections by anyone would not only be dangerous but undo indefatigable labors, might even cause disaster to the restoration of the incomparable curriculum. It was imperative that each member be left free to work out his own salvation. He knew how his department had formerly been run, and was best qualified to return it to its former perfection.
The speech plainly said, without saying so in words, "Mister Superintendent, stay in your place and we'll stay in ours. Not one jot or tittle of the old regime will be changed. Of course, we are ready to give you advice and help on any matters on the reservation."
All the while, MacArthur had looked up with that innocent expression of one of Raphael's cherubs.
At the finish, he asked demurely, "For my own enlightenment, please tell me: Would there be no advantage to a cadet in knowing the bearing one subject has on another?"
The professor gave him a stony stare and exuded a tone of finality. "Unnecessary, in the present scheme."
MacArthur, instead of pursuing the matter or arguing, turned to me like a lawyer who had dismissed his witness, and asked lightly, "Anything more on the agenda?"
To my "No, sir," he turned brightly around.
"If there is no objection, the Board is adjourned."
Not once in the proceedings had he offered an opinion or made a declaration.
Back in his office he looked up from signing some papers, then shook his head slowly, with a puzzled smile.
"Old practices die hard. I wish someone of these elderly gentlemen had been with me a little in France. Probably our most important necessity out there was to keep in touch with the outfits on either side and they with us. We would have been defeated had we not done that. I am unable to decipher why the same principle is not applicable to a curriculum. As it is, the cadet moves from one water-tight compartment to another, p40 like a traveler riding to different towns. He might as well be in separate institutions for each subject. The education he derives here is not a single entity. It's a lot of loose bricks without mortar."
He turned on me sharply. "Seems to me the very word 'curriculum' has something to do with running together and not separately."
Where, I thought, had he found that out, with no study of Latin or other classics behind him?
"There must be a way," he went on, "whereby the subjects can be so interlaced that the cadet gets the impression of a single scheme of things." He flashed around, "Chief, do you know what 'P. R.' stands for?"
Before I could answer, he said, "It's personal reconnaissance. Any commander in the field would be derelict, to the point of murder, if he didn't know firsthand how his units were disposed, how the weapons were emplaced, exactly where his right and left were — in fact, every detail he could scrutinize. Why shouldn't such detailed reconnaissance apply to a higher institution of learning?
"Here I am, in my capacity of Supe, charged with conducting discussions and making decisions on all matters of the Post. How am I going to be able to do so intelligently if I haven't seen and known the critical areas by personal observation and contact? Chief, I am determined to enter the Academic buildings, see with my own eyes and hear with my own ears."
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: 14 Jun 16