The Magazine

Saluting the Canon

The liberal arts are alive and well--at military academies.

Sep 18, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 01 • By MARK BAUERLEIN
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The students take their seats, pull out their pencils, and open their books as they would in any college classroom in America. Here, though, they show up in gray cadet uniforms, gleaming black shoes, and closely cropped hair, not the hip-hugger jeans and baseball caps so popular on other campuses. The younger ones have walked to class at a brisk, regulated pace--120 strides per minute--passing along the quad two armored vehicles and a church whose motto reads, "Remember Now Thy Creator in the Days of Thy Youth." Ask any of them directions and they begin with "Yes, sir," and part with "You're welcome, sir."

When Colonel Leonard enters the room, they turn to the day's text:

Awake my St. John! Leave all meaner things

To low ambition and the pride of kings.

Let us (since life can little more supply

Than just to look about us, and to die)

Expatiate free o'er all this scene of man;

A mighty maze! but not without a plan.

This is English 201--Major British Writers at The Citadel, the 164-year-old military college in Charleston, South Carolina. Colonel Leonard is the English Department chairman, a Brown Ph.D. and scholar of Mark Twain who has taught at the college for 23 years. One student whispers to me, "Colonel Leonard is the best darn English teacher I've ever had." For the next hour, he leads them through Alexander Pope's Essay on Man in the customary way, explaining themes, counting metrics, and asking questions.

Eight hundred miles north, on a bluff above the Hudson River, West Point cadets prepare for an hour of English 385--The Novel. They've already covered Moll Flanders, Dracula, and Native Son, and today's text is The Bone People, a 1985 Booker Prize winner from New Zealand. Fifteen cadets (three of them female) stand at attention when Lieutenant Colonel Lester Knotts steps to the podium and, with a smile, puts on some leisurely beach guitar music to set the scene in the novel.

What follows is 45 minutes of classic dialectic. A line from the novel is chosen: "To care for anything deeply is to invite disaster." Is that true in the novel? Colonel Knotts asks. Is it true in life? Cadets respond, and are pressed to clarify points and find evidence. Those who hesitate are pushed harder, and mumblings of disagreement are heeded and challenged. One maintains, "Excessive entanglement between emotion and belief is dangerous"--unusual words for a 19-year-old. Another applies politically incorrect notions of European civility and native savagery to the characters, but others dispute him without the moral disapproval typical of the civilian classroom. A female cadet questions a theme Colonel Knotts has chosen--"damsel in distress"--and when another argues, "Alcohol has been a social and emotional lubricant for thousands of years," it's time to go.

Many of the young men and women at The Citadel will join the armed services after graduation, not become teachers or writers. Thirty-eight percent of them do, and President Roger Poole, who earned a B.A. in English at The Citadel in 1959, went on to a distinguished military career, his last active duty assignment being director of transportation, troop support, and energy for the Army during Desert Storm. All of the cadets at West Point are on their way to the Army, and while Lieutenant General William Lennox, the superintendent, earned a doctorate in literature at Princeton, he compiled a sterling record in a variety of field and staff assignments.

Literature is fine, but The Citadel aims to teach the martial virtues. As novelist Pat Conroy (Class of '67, B.A., English) put it in a 1999 piece in the Charleston Post & Courier, The Citadel is "tough and structured and Spartan." West Point's motto is "DUTY HONOR COUNTRY," not "BEAUTY TRUTH EXISTENCE." What place do poetry and epistemology have in the training of soldiers?

When I told some colleagues that I planned to visit The Citadel and West Point and find out about the humanities there, they had a ready answer. One laughed: "The humanities at military schools?! Come on. They don't want kids to think. They want them to be robots." Reading great works of the past, exploring other eras and cultures, pondering the traditions behind contemporary values, posing moral dilemmas--this is antithetical to the mind of a soldier, they believe, and so the teachers at the military schools don't want to go near edgy art and profound thought.