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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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.