Education for the Troops
By Captain Steve F. Kime, USN (Ret.)
Proceedings, August 2004
War, some say, is too important to be left to the generals. This is debatable: great Secretaries of State have been generals and DoD is usually run by politicians. But the thinking behind this notion is worth contemplation. What is the relationship of broader, critical thought to the military mission at all levels of combat? How important is education when the socio-political elements of the use of force are growing and sometimes overshadow the military elements?
At the executive level the U.S. military establishment has not ignored this question. A strong educational system of undergraduate education, Service War Colleges, postgraduate opportunity, and joint duty works fairly well, and DoD has at least as respectable a record as that of the Department of State of posting capable, politically astute people to sensitive posts.
Modern war is becoming too complex to be left to corporals or sailors as we have trained them in the past. We do not think much about the working levels of our military when it comes to the social and political elements of military presence and the use of force. This in spite of the fact that most of the socio-political interface with potentially hostile populationst these days is at lower levels. Our history, our military traditions, and the necessity to train more intensely for the modern battlefield all militate against putting time and resources into broader education for our enlisted people.
But we must. No longer can the sailor be regarded as a working class person who is "sly and cunning and to be watched at all times." Neither is the soldier or marine an automaton to be trained not to question orders rather than educated to be a critically-thinking, armed, ambassador who must act correctly on a small piece of a complex socio-political battlefield. The thinking cannot be left to superiors who get the education and wear the brass. This is a technological and a social reality.
It is useful to remember that the military is one of many employers in our society. It is a huge and unique employer, but in many ways the military is subject to the trends and forces that buffet other employers. One of these trends is the growing importance of education in the workplace. To recruit, grow, and retain modern workers, especially those who would become leaders, corporate executives are learning that technical and social realities in the civilian world require education well beyond the training that they have always understood and accepted as a cost of doing business. The military corporation is in the same boat.
Modern technology requires more than mere training. It is simply not enough to train a combatant what to do with modern equipment. It is so complex and the circumstances of its employment potentially so diverse that its human operator and maintainer must be a critical thinker; that is, a person educated to deal with circumstances not yet ever encountered.
In a few hours a servicemember can find himself in an alien social reality. He cannot be trained for this. Like senior military leadership, he must be educated. Of course, the level of education needs to be appropriate to the level of responsibility, but it is education and not simply more or better training that is required. The broad general education coursework that is integral to any respectable degree program, even associate and most technical degrees, should be taken by servicemembers who aspire to enlisted leadership positions. Being required to think about history, society, and cultural diversity, and to articulate and defend their own views about them, will go a long way toward developing the critical thinking skills needed in their personal arsenal.
Today, voluntary educational opportunities for military enlisted personnel are greater and tuition assistance is more accessible than ever before. Tens of thousands of servicemembers are going to school. What then, is the problem?
The positive environment for voluntary postsecondary education is more a result of recruiting and retention calculations than of an understanding that we need a professional enlisted force whose leadership elements are both educated and trained. Such an understanding - a vision for enlisted education - is needed to avoid allowing voluntary education to become merely another "people program" instead of a crucial part of the personal and professional development of our military workforce. A comprehensive vision of enlisted education would also prevent education programs and dollars from becoming just more resources for military trainers, certain death for development of critical thinking capacities.
For example, we must avoid the tendency to channel servicemembers into degree programs linked to their military occupational specialties. True, for some. these vocational programs are appropriate and probably often contain as much broadening education as some servicemembers want or are capable of completing. Vocational options should certainly be maintained. They must not become, connected as they are to occupational training at Service Schools, mere extensions of training. The price of encouraging this is high. Minimal broadening and mind-stretching coursework is taken. Pursuit of higher levels of education and conceptual development can be stifled.
Technology harbors some serious traps for both civilian and military higher education. American higher education, after a going through a "next big thing" phase, is coming to realize the limits of distance education. It is not a panacea. Certainly some work can be done on the internet, for example, but there are serious concerns that important aspects of the educational process are getting short shrift. At a minimum, it is obvious that such study is not for everyone and that highly capable students can get more out of it than can average or less academically oriented students. Our servicemember students are terrific, dedicated adult students, but they must not be automatically assumed to be prime candidates for independent study on the web. The military is quick to seize on what they are told is newer, faster, better and cheaper, and we easily fall into the trap that the allure of web-based coursework represents.
It is an error to channel our students into educational options, technology-driven ones or vocational ones, that do not fulfill the promise of real educational opportunity that many joined up for. It is also bad business for the military corporation.
If we want to compete with civil society for capable youth and with industry for a competent modern workforce, we must maintain educational options for our enlisted servicemembers that are as rich and varied as those of their civilian counterparts One of the difficulties in doing this is that the military likes things neat and higher education is a diverse, messy operation. Military voluntary educational programs must resist the temptation to overorganize, direct and supervise. For real education to take place, a student must have choices, make sacrifices and do some hard work. For many, this will require the inconvenience of the classroom, and for others technical modes of delivery will work, but for most it will be a blend of various colleges and different modes of educational delivery that will serve them best. This requires patient management and does not lend itself to quick fixes. And spoon feeding, a trainer's habit, will not work with serious education.
It was encouraging to hear that CNO Vern Clark at the 4th Annual Navy Workforce Research and Analysis Conference on March 29, 2004 said " When I dream about the future, my dream is of a Navy where all the Chief Petty Officers have college degrees."
Admiral Clark has an ambitious vision for Navy
voluntary enlisted education that can help to create the modern force we need. Now the trick is to ensure that this vision does not get reduced to merely another "people program" and that the vision results in every sailor's education becoming part of the personal and professional development of the Navy workforce. Finally, it is crucial that the trainers not be allowed to simply absorb the vision, swallow it up in the vast array of training programs, and cause us to fail to develop a senior sailor that is both educated and trained.
Steve Kime earned a doctorate from Harvard while on active duty in he Navy. He is currently President of Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges and a vice president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. He is a former Board member of the U. S. Naval Institute.