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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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.