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.

But the evidence on the ground shows that this is anything but the case. The English major at The Citadel is traditional and rigorous, requiring a year-long British literature survey course, a semester in Shakespeare, and a course in Chaucer or Milton. While most cadets end up pursuing military, business, or engineering careers, their English teachers try to be "subversive in a positive way," Colonel Leonard says. Whenever you hear "subversive" in an English department, it usually means "anti-American," "anti-capitalist," or "anti-Christian," but here it only signifies the reflective thinking and moral imagination that they don't encounter in other classes and in their barracks life.

In his classes he teaches feminist classics such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper and antiwar pieces such as William Dean Howell's Editha. Another professor there, Jennifer Bernstein, also sees the humanities as a complementary experience. She's only two years out of graduate school, a specialist in American antinomianism who passed through the liberal havens of NYU and CUNY before heading south to what seemed at first a foreign land. Militarism dominates the first year of cadet life, she observes, and English classes help keep that ethos from overwhelming the freshmen's educational growth. But the relation isn't adversarial. On the contrary, reared in the politically correct atmosphere of graduate school in the Northeast, she finds the honor code and moral earnestness of cadets "liberating." While her students in New York seemed to pass through their coursework haphazardly, she recalls, Citadel students "develop a coherent body of knowledge . . . they try to formulate a vision . . . they care about right and wrong."

At West Point, the department incorporates art, philosophy, and literature into a general humanities formation, one required course this year focusing on Ancient Athens. The hallways are lined with posters of Titian, Brueghel, and Vermeer, and the web-site advertises student clubs for jazz, film, Greek and Roman history, and creative writing. Colonel James R. Kerin, chairman of the department (Ph.D. in English, University of Pennsylvania), says that the program aims "to produce a common knowledge . . . to maintain the integrity of the broad educational experience." Although West Point is known as an engineering school, he notes, the knowledge and skills that come from exploring great works of art and literature and weighing philosophical quandaries are essential to the training of soldiers in the modern world.

Part of that training is what might be called the power of argument under fire. In one class after another, cadets are made to face difficult issues and address positions contrary to American actions and ideals. A freshman seminar I attended focused on Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Coppola's Apocalypse Now, one condemning European colonialism in Africa, the other military conduct in Vietnam. Lieutenant Colonel Robert Gibson charged one cadet after another to assess the moral condition of Kurtz. Although these were teenagers a few months from high school, their replies were sharp; for example: "And even with a ship ready to bring him back to Europe, Kurtz is overcome by the African drums and tribal chants and, although he is deathly ill, finds the strength to inch back towards Congo's carnal comfort."

Another class, Philosophy 201, raised the stakes to questions of death and innocence in wartime. The reading list included Plato, Aristotle, John Stuart Mill, and Thomas Hardy, and the syllabus asked students to "reflect on your beliefs while honestly and sincerely considering the merits of opposing views, evidence, and conclusions." True to that goal, Lieutenant Colonel Allen Bishop raised the day's topic, Hiroshima, and contrasted Michael Walzer's position against dropping the bomb (in Just and Unjust Wars) with Paul Fussell's position for (in Thank God for the Atom Bomb). Sixteen students went back and forth--four of them women, one of the men a special forces soldier just back from Iraq--pondering the justifications for killing an estimated 180,000 Japanese citizens.

"These weren't civilians. They were people who pledged to fight us with spears once we invaded," one claimed. "Yes, but what about the children and elderly," another replied. A grisly description by Colonel Bishop set the tone: Skulls clustered by the riverbank, skin drooping from the arms of victims, a black rain falling for an hour after the blast.

This is a far cry from the indoctrination assumed to take place in military schools. As opposed to the military discipline outside class, intellectual life is broad-ranging and enlightened. Cadets debate ethics, study history, and write poetry--Colonel Gibson's freshmen last year issued a volume of their poetry subtitled "Voices Unrestrained by the Uniform of the Day." Indeed, with the teachers stressing learning and argumentation, not conformity, the cadets have more freedom to contest standard assumptions than students do in civilian classrooms. Just consider, Colonel Kerin laughs, last year's endowed lecturer at West Point: Al Franken. That is equivalent to Rush Limbaugh speaking at Berkeley--an inconceivable happening.

The evidence also testifies to the significance of the humanities at The Citadel and West Point, a view maintained at the highest levels. When Major General John Grinalds stepped down as president of The Citadel last year, he highlighted "the undertaking that I most cherish," the Krause Initiative in Ethics and Leadership, whose curricular component is the Minor in Leadership Studies housed in, yes, the English Department.

Lieutenant General Lennox at West Point believes that the humanities are necessitated in the curriculum by the current geopolitical situation. After cadets graduate, they soon depart for "the edge of our ethical world," he says, meaning not just life-or-death situations, but cultural, religious, and ethical traditions deeply foreign to our own. To "face those challenges with understanding," he insists, they need imagination and wisdom to comprehend the values and motives of uncertain friends and enemies. They need to defend themselves verbally as well as physically. Those skills and knowledge come from humanistic study and critical self- analysis: "You don't want your army to be mindlessly patriotic."

The best measure of a school's commitment to the humanities is to be found in the core curriculum. The core curriculum makes up the courses that the college asks all students to take, the knowledge and experience that students should have before they graduate. If you want to know how much a field counts at an institution, look at how it is represented in the core. Most universities require only one or two courses in the humanities, and dozens of offerings may fill the requirement. The freshman writing course that most colleges require can range over just about any topic, so it doesn't count.

Upriver from West Point, Vassar has no core curriculum at all, and doesn't require any English, philosophy, or history courses. The University of Virginia requires two humanities courses, while Duke has every student take a freshman writing course, two courses in arts/literature/performance, and two courses in "Civilizations." But the humanistic content in many courses that qualify is minimal, and the breadth can be microscopic. The freshmen writing courses at Duke, for example, include one on "The Politics of Scientific Discovery" and one on "Imagining Marriage in America," whose synopsis begins with a WEEKLY STANDARD article by Stanley Kurtz and which chooses The Stepford Wives as its only film version of marriage.

These are standard fare, and they aim more to make students adopt the professors' ideology than to make them more learned. If students take such courses as their only exposure to the humanities during their undergraduate career, the learning they are supposed to derive from their education amounts to nil.

By contrast, consider what the military schools require of all cadets. The Citadel demands four courses in English, two of them composition courses focused on literary topics and one a literature survey from Beowulf to Gulliver's Travels. The other course may be the second half of the British survey, an American literature survey, or a world literature survey. West Point requires four courses in English: beginning and advanced composition--the latter a broad culture course focused on a particular nation (this year: Iran)--one literature course, and one philosophy course. As opposed to the leftist indoctrination that goes on in humanities classrooms at flagship universities, the humanities classroom at the military schools expects broad study of great works and ideas and intense discussion about them. I didn't see any ideological pressure during my visits; on the contrary, the teachers were entirely open to a full range of assertions, as long as cadets argued for them well.

If anything, the military schools are more serious about humanistic knowledge and skills than are the best civilian schools. They require more courses of all their students, and they engage them with the materials just as intensely. Today's university speaks highly of liberal education, highlighting the importance of knowing other cultures, histories, and religions, as well as our own heritage. But when it comes time to design an integral body of humanistic knowledge, they falter.

A committee at Harvard recently reported on the core curriculum, emphasizing the importance of knowledge in "an increasingly global and connected, yet simultaneously diverse and fragmented world." But when it came time to identify the knowledge needed, they wrung their hands and defaulted, feeling too much "skepticism about the possibility of ranking certain academic subjects, texts, and concepts as more fundamental than others."

How refreshing it is to find a few schools whose teachers have enough conviction about literature, philosophy, and art to demand that all graduates be immersed in them. And how surprising it is that these schools should be not the elite pipeline of America's professors and writers and intellectuals, but training grounds for its soldiers.

Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory, is the author, most recently, of Negrophobia: A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906.