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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Journal of Higher Education
Vol. 8 No. 8, pp425‑434

The text is in the public domain.

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 p425  Military Education in the United States
By Leroy T. Patton

A proposal to Differentiate Training into Pre-Military and Military

The United States Military Academy at West Point was founded in 1802, but it led a precarious existence for a number of years. It was not until 1812 that the Academy really functioned as a military school. It was not a popular institution in the new democracy and suffered both from public indifference and actual hostility. As late as 1833 there were serious threats to its existence. In that year a special committee of Congress recommended the abolition of the school entirely, and the Academy was saved only because its friends were able to demonstrate that it was not a great financial burden on the public and that the system of appointing cadets by congressmen was an assurance of a democratic spirit at the institution — something concerning which the congressman of the time had some misgivings, not altogether without reason.

Actual hostility toward the institution has long since ceased to exist, but the handicap of indifference it has never been able to overcome. From its earliest existence it has been handed over to the army, and the army, in effect, made totally responsible for it; it seems never to have occurred to the general public that the army's business is not in the field of general education but in a field considerably removed from it.

In 1802, only 21 of the 577 institutions of higher learning now in existence in the United States had come into being, and the majority of these were struggling institutions without adequate support. Even in 1812, the year of the reorganization of the Academy, the number had been increased by only one. The great American public-school system was still in its infancy, and it was not until nearly twenty years afterwards that the first public high school was founded. This was the era of private academies, and the Academy derived much of its character from the type of school prevalent at the time.

At the time of its founding, the Academy had to provide whatever general education the future officers of the army might need since there was little opportunity for general education anywhere in the United States, particularly in the rapidly expanding country of the frontier. No one would argue, however, that the emergency which existed in the  p426 early part of the last century has continued into the present, in which the youth of the day have the most wonderful educational opportunities ever presented to any people.

Although actual hostility toward the Academy has gradually disappeared through the years, a large section of the public has remained apathetic. One is a portion totally uninterested in this or any other military matter, and another portion, having assumed that the work of the Academy is a strictly military matter and of no concern to the civilian, has also become indifferent to it. The friends of the Academy, on the other hand, have come to look upon it almost with adulation.

This adulation, in part, has been deserved. The Academy has had a long and honorable history. It has produced some of our most illustrious leaders. Around it have grown up some of the best and noblest of our American traditions. It has created an atmosphere of patriotic devotion unexcelled in any institution, domestic or foreign. Its officers of administration and its faculty have been men distinguished in the profession of arms. The high sense of honor which its atmosphere and traditions inspire in its students makes them examples of the highest type of American manhood. But that the Academy is an institution without shortcomings is scarcely to be expected of it or any other human institution. That its shortcomings are seldom, if ever, studied or brought to public attention is perhaps due to the fact that no one of the three groups mentioned is interested in studying its defects.​a

The writer believes that these groups do not have the correct attitude. He has long been an admirer of the traditions of the Academy, its accomplishments, its illustrious graduates, and the part that it has played in the development of this great country; but he does not believe that it is without defects. Neither does he believe that, because he is without military education and experience, his opinion and that of others in like situation should be of no weight. This, perhaps, is true with regard to strictly professional military matters, but touching matters of general education, particularly higher education, the opinion of those who have had training and experience in these fields is most certainly entitled to consideration.

That the United States Military Academy concerns itself more with matters of general and higher education than it does with professional military education can be seen by an examination of its curriculum. It is difficult to compare the course of study prescribed by the Academy with curriculums of other institutions, because the Academy does not make use of the same units or conduct its work in the same manner as do other institutions of higher learning. A reduction of the course of study to the usual terms, however, shows the curriculum to be essentially as follows:




Department of Civil and Military Engineering —

Civil engineering

4.4 1


1.0 1

Army engineering

1.8 1

Military art

5.1 1

 p427  Department of Natural and Experimental Philosophy —

Analytical mechanics for engineers

5.3 2

Thermodynamics and prime movers

3.3 2

Hydraulics and hydraulic machinery

2.0 2


1.4 2


1.4 2

Department of Mathematics —

Solid geometry

2.5 4


2.5 4

Algebra, trigonometry, and analytical geometry

5.0 4

Differential and integral calculus

5.0 3

Department of Chemistry and Electricity —


6.5 2

Electrical engineering

9.0 2

Department of Drawing —

Surveying, topographical mapping,
descriptive geometry,
general drawing, machine drawing

Middle of 4
to middle of 2​1



Department of Modern Languages —


5.2 4





Department of Law —

Elements of law

1.2 2

Constitutional law

1.0 1

Criminal law

1.0 1


1.0 1

Military law

1.0 1

Department of Ordnance and Gunnery —

Ordnance and gunnery

6.0 1

Department of Military Hygiene —

Military hygiene

1.8 1

Department of English —


6.0 1


6.0 3

Department of Economics, Government, and History

Medieval and modern history

6.0 3


3.0 1


3.0 1

Department of Physics —


3.0 3

Department of Tactics —


4.0 4


2.0 3



The number of semester-hours required for graduation corresponds to the number required for engineering degrees in the majority of American colleges and universities. Of the total 131 hours, only the following could by liberal interpretation be regarded as strictly professional military subjects:​b

Fortifications 1.0
Army engineering 1.8
Military art 5.1
Aerodynamics 1.4
Military law 1.0
Ordnance and gunnery 6.0
Military hygiene 1.8
Tactics 6.0
Total 24.1

Less than one year of the work of the Academy is devoted to strictly military subjects, and more than three years are devoted to work ordinarily offered in civilian institutions of higher learning. This takes the Academy out of the class of strictly professional military schools and puts it with institutions to be judged by general higher education.

 p428  In examining any institution of higher learning, one of the first considerations would be the faculty of the institution. The faculty of the United States Military Academy has always had illustrious names on its roll; but these are names of eminent soldiers, not eminent professors, and illustrious soldiers do not make eminent professors any more than eminent professors would make good generals. The general public has a hazy idea that the officer-professor plan is a good one, because it believes that the students are being educated in military matters and that no one would be so well qualified to give such instruction as an eminent soldier. This would be true if the curriculum consisted of professional military subjects, which it does not. Instead of military subjects, the officer-professors are giving instruction in physics, chemistry, economics, English, and other subjects ordinarily taught in colleges and university stone contained in ordinary civilian curriculums, subjects in which they have not had adequate preparation and in which as professional soldiers they have no particular interest.

That the preparation of the officer-professors is inadequate for the subjects they teach is quite evident from an examination of their records. The Official Army Register, published by the Secretary of War, gives complete information concerning all the commissioned officers of the United States army, including information regarding their education. From the issue of January 1, 1936, the data given in Table I were obtained concerning the members of the faculty of the Academy for 1934‑35 as listed in the Official Register of Officers and Cadets under date of June, 1935. The rank of faculty members holding higher degrees is administrative officers, none; professors, one; associate professors, none; assistant professors, two; and instructors, eight.

The Numbers of Members in the Different Departments together with the Numbers Holding Masters' and Doctors' Degrees










8 0 0


24 0 0

Civil and military engineering

12 1 0

Natural and experimental philosophy

14 0 0


23 0 0

Chemistry and electricity

12 3 0


15 0 0

Modern languages

*25 1 0


8 1 0

Ordnance and gunnery

7 2 0

Military hygiene

1 0 0


15 2 0

Economics, government, and history

15 1 0


8 0 0


187 11 0
* No information is given regarding the three civilian instructors.

Under present-day educational standards the preparation of the faculty of the Academy scarcely meets acceptable high-school standards, much less standards that ought to be maintained by a great national institution of higher learning. Certainly no institution of higher education can be regarded as maintaining acceptable standards, if 94 per cent of its faculty have had no training  p429 in the subject which they teach beyond their undergraduate courses, if only three men of professorial rank hold Masters' degrees, and no member of the faculty holds a Doctor's degree. The Academy is able to hold its position as an educational institution, in spite of the low standard of training of its faculty, because of its position as a national institution, and because it has an assured quota of students, whose expenses are paid out of the public treasury, and for whom positions are assured as soon as they have completed their four-year course.

Present-day standards of higher education demand that professors shall not only be men having adequate preparation but that they be productive scholars as well. The system under which the Academy operates not only does not encourage productive scholar­ship but actually prevents it. Under the officer-professor system, teaching at the Academy is a temporary assignment. The Official Register of June, 1935, shows that 25 per cent of the faculty had been relieved from duty the preceding year, and of the 187 listed only 6, or a little more than 3 per cent of the entire faculty, had served five years or more. Certainly there can be no incentive to productive scholar­ship if men know that in five years or less they will be transferred to other duties. Furthermore, teaching duty at the Academy is not in line with the officers' professional interests, and eminent achievements in scholar­ship would not be of any value to them as far as future promotions are concerned, even if they had any opportunities to make such achievements, which they do not have.

The officer-professor idea is so absurd that it is difficult to see how it has endured. If, for example, a great railroad system were to be entirely staffed in all of its departments by men selected from college and university faculties, and these men were given to understand that appointments were temporary and that in a few years they would be returned to their former occupations, and that their promotions and future careers depended, not upon their eminence as railroad administrators, but as professors of psychology, English, physics, or French, does anybody suppose that such a railroad system would long survive as a business organization? And not even the most enthusiastic advocate of the officer-professor system would accept the view that an eminent professor of economics, for example, without military training or experience, would be a good man to put in charge of an army in the face of an enemy invasion. Yet there is no difference between the two cases except that the professor-general would be more quickly and effectively shown up by the defeat and annihilation of his army, while the shortcomings of the officer-professor are not so completely and publicly exposed.

The officer-professor system contains another glaring defect, namely, the inbreeding of instructors. The faculty of the Academy, almost without exception, is made up of graduates of the Academy, the majority of whom have had no other  p430 academic training. Such inbreeding is the worst possible educational practice from many standpoints, but particularly because it lends itself to the perpetuation of the defects of a system in which the men trained under it become indifferent to its evils.

Both the officer-professor system and the inbreeding of instructors are the result of public indifference or actual hostility to the Academy, particularly in the early days of its history. Using army officers as instructors was a cheap and easy way to staff the institution, and, as has been seen, the institution did well to survive at all during the early years, much less secure for itself an ideal organization; and once inaugurated, the system has perpetuated itself.

The Academy is entirely removed from any influence which would tend to keep it abreast of the times in scholastic matters. The control of the Academy is under the supervision of the Department of War, with a somewhat remote control by Congress through a Board of Visitors. The departments of academic instruction and positions pertaining to them, however, are created by congressional action. It is scarcely to be expected under such circumstances, therefore, that the institution would be able to keep abreast of the times in academic matters. That it has, in a measure, succeeded in doing so is more to be wondered at than that it has not done so in certain other respects.

From the foregoing discussion it might seem that the officer-professors should be replaced by adequately trained civilian professors and that a measure of civilian control be introduced into the Academy. On the contrary, however, the writer is of the opinion that this would be a most unwise move; since to do so would destroy the Academy's most valuable asset, namely, its military atmosphere and its character as a military institution. Whatever its faults, it should be remembered that the business of the Academy is to develop soldiers, and the writer is of the opinion that four years in the military atmosphere of the Academy in contact with its traditions and under the influence of officers of high rank and achievement in their profession are worth while in the development of the future officers of the army even if in the meantime they acquire only an indifferent education. The writer believes, however, that a comprehensive plan for the education of the future officers of the army can be worked out which will sacrifice neither the present advantages of the Academy nor the highest educational standards.

It might seen that the problem could be solved by selecting from among the young officers of the army men of special talents and giving them the opportunity to do graduate work and prepare themselves to become instructors in the Academy. The Academy would then have professor-officers instead of officer-professors. The situation would be no better than before, however, for if these men are to devote themselves to the serious business of teaching, and to become chemists, physicians, or economists of standing in the academic world, they must  p431 perforce abandon the profession of arms, and the plan would have practically no advantages over the introduction of a civilian faculty.

Obviously, then, the only feasible plan is for the Academy to abandon any and all endeavors in the field of general education and devote itself primarily to military education, its proper sphere. Then, instead of having an eminent officer attempting to teach chemistry, physics, history, or foreign language, subjects with which he is only moderately conversant, and in which he is not professionally interested, the students of the Academy could be under instructors not only well prepared, but men who have accomplished things in the branch of the profession of arms which they represent. The inspirational influence of such instructors would of itself be of incalculable value and would be in marked contrast to the present situation. That his instructor in physics has a Distinguished Service Cross, or that his professor of economics has been given a Medal of Honor does not inspire the students in those subjects with a burning zeal for their pursuit; but students studying military affairs by which these honors were achieved would be greatly inspired by them.

But, it will be urged, officers need a certain amount of general education. That, of course, is admitted. In 1802, if the Academy had not furnished such an education, the chances are that it would not have been secured; the opportunities for general education are immeasurably greater today than they were in 1802, and there is no longer any necessity for maintaining a system which was founded to meet a need which no longer exists. The United States Military Academy should become a professional school in every sense of the word, and its students should obtain their general education before entering the Academy.

When the Academy was founded, lawyers obtained their training by studying in the office of some older lawyer. Doctors, likewise, studied with older practitioners. Today, lawyers must spend at least two years in college and three years in law school. Doctors must take a minimum of two years in college and spend four years in medical school. In addition, medical students who have a college diploma must stand high in their classes to be admitted to some of the better medical schools. The day has certainly passed when an institution such as the United States Military Academy should spend its time and energy in giving civilian education instead of concentrating upon purely professional training.

Certainly the profession of the soldier is the most important profession within a nation, and education of members of that profession should be the nation's first concern. A comprehensive program for this purpose should have as its first objective the freeing of the Academy from the necessity of giving training in those branches of ordinary civilian education, which, as has been shown, the Academy is but indifferently fitted to give, and which are in reality no part of the business of the members of the military profession. This could easily be accomplished by making  p432 provision for those entering the Academy to have secured their training in these subjects before entrance. In other words, the entrance requirements of the Academy should be raised to a point comparable to the entrance requirements of law and medical schools so that when young men enter the Academy, they may devote themselves to strictly professional training.

It would be asking too much, perhaps, of the candidates to the Academy that they under go preparation at their own expense in the hope of obtaining an appointment to the Academy. The military profession does not offer any opportunities for individual careers as do the law and medicine; to pursue the profession of arms it is necessary that one be connected with the army; outside of the army there is no opportunity. A young man could not be expected, therefore, to prepare himself for entrance into a professional military school with no assurance that he would be appointed to that school, no matter how well prepared he might be, and no assurance, therefore, of entrance into the profession of arms.

On the other hand, provision could easily be made for appointment of cadets and assignment of these appointees to properly qualified institutions of learning in different parts of the United States for the completion of their pre-Academy training. Such a program could be carried out without prohibitive cost. For the same cost that a cadet is maintained at the Academy, he could without difficulty be maintained at any one of the great civilian institutions of the country.

A scientifically planned program for pre-Academy education prepared by properly qualified experts both in military matters and in civilian education could be presented to those institutions of higher learning in different parts of the United States that possess the proper qualifications for conducting such work. It would be highly desirable to have a chancellor of military education to co-operate with the superintendent of the Academy in developing the pre-Academy curriculum and in administering it after its adoption. After such a curriculum had been developed and presented to the properly qualified institutions, cadets could be assigned to such institutions as agreed to adopt it. It should be remembered in this connection that such a curriculum would involve nothing new in subjects offered at these institutions and would put no additional burden upon them, in as much as no subjects of a professional nature are here contemplated but only those pertaining to ordinary civilian education which would be properly regarded as preparatory to professional education.

The number of institutions chosen for this purpose would not need to be large since a few institutions distributed in different parts of the country could easily take care of the work; it would be possible, therefore, to choose only institutions of the highest rank.

The administration of this civilian pre-Academy education should be entrusted to a chancellor of military education. This official's duties should include frequent inspections  p433 of the institutions concerned, a careful supervision of the work of the cadets and their standing, and the prompt elimination of those not measuring up to the proper standards. Such an official might also be of great service to those congressmen who would care to make use of his services in helping them select from their constituencies only the most desirable candidates for appointment.

It is a significant fact that during the first half-century of its existence the United States Military Academy was one of the outstanding leaders in educational progress. Colonel Tillman in his Academic History of the Military Academy states that prior to 1840 real instruction in engineering was offered almost exclusively at the United States Military Academy and that up to 1850 nearly all civil engineers received their education at the Academy.​2 Except for its traditions and its atmosphere, the Academy has long since fallen from its high estate as one of the leaders in educational progress and is content with a rôle in educational work which places it little above that of many of the great high schools.

It is not desirable that the Academy should again return to its rôle of the early part of the century as an educational institution for the preparation of members of the profession of engineering or other civil professions, but it is desirable that it take its proper place in the educational system of a great nation as one of the leaders and pioneers in educational progress. It can do so only by becoming a strictly professional school with its curriculum limited to those professional subjects which are its proper interests.

It might be urged that such a plan would result in young men's obtaining appointments for the mere purpose of securing the civilian education at the expense of the government and then resigning before going to the Academy. Such a danger would be more apparent than real. The young man today who takes a pre-law course in college and then decides to enter a medical school finds that his pre-law training is of decidedly little benefit to him in preparation for the medical school. The pre-Academy training which would be designed to prepare the student for the professional military education of the Academy would be correspondingly useless to the student desiring to enter some other profession, for the military profession today is as highly specialized as constitutional law or surgery, and the pre-Academy training would be correspondingly specialized. Furthermore, this situation does prevail under the present organization, since it is perfectly possible for a young man to resign at the completion of his course in the Academy and to enter any civil occupation he pleases, instead of giving his services to the government which has educated him. There is no reason for believing that this practice would be any more extensive under the system proposed than under the present system, and there is reason to believe that it would be less. A simple provision that credits earned by an appointee would be automatically cancelled by his resignation before graduation at the United  p434 States Military Academy would eliminate any temptation to take unfair advantage of these provisions.

Under the plan here proposed the Academy curriculum could probably be shortened from four years to three years. The necessary pre-Academy training could possibly be concentrated into two years of intensive work, particularly if provision is made in the pre-Academy curriculum for continuing the work during the summer sessions — and there is no reason why such provision should not be made. The cadet would receive his commission, therefore, at the end of five years instead of four. This would not be an unreasonable period of preparation. The doctor must spend from six to eight years beyond his high-school preparation, usually with a year or two of intern­ship added, before he embarks on his career. The young lawyer has a minimum of five years, while the aspirant for a Ph.D. degree faces a minimum of seven or eight years.

Under the plan proposed, the young officer would emerge at the end of five years, not with an indifferent general education and less than a year's professional military education, but with a sound pre-professional general education and three years of intensive professional education. Should such a program be adopted, provision ought also be made to commission cadets to a higher rank upon graduation than is done at present. It would seem that the completion of this amount of professional training should entitle graduates to the rank of first lieutenant. It is not believed that the plan which has been outlined constitutes a complete and perfect program, but it is believed that, from the standpoint of the sound principles of higher education, the broad lines that have been indicated are those along which education in this important profession should be reorganized.

The Author's Notes:

1 Exact time devoted to each subject not indicated.

[decorative delimiter]

2 58th Congress, 2nd Session, 1903. p289.

Thayer's Notes:

a A very important constituency has been omitted by the author, and one very interested in studying the defects of the Military Academy: those in charge of the institution, and the higher levels of the military command whose duty includes insuring that West Point will do what it is called to do — as a former Superintendent forcefully reminded cadets and staff, to win the nation's wars. This is so very crucial that it is unimaginable that those responsible for the institution at any level would put on blinkers because they like the place. The fairly deserved adulation may come from its graduates, their families, and assorted admirers like myself (our author's third constituency); but it had better not come from those running the Academy: and sure enough, it does not. A constant process of thinking and rethinking, reforming and adjusting has been, in the 20c and 21c at least, part and parcel of USMA's mission.

[decorative delimiter]

b The surveying and topographical mapping, etc. by a fairly strict interpretation, surely qualify as a professional military subject; and our author's narrow list is hardly a "liberal interpretation". Neither of these points much affects the author's basic argument.

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