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article imageOp-Ed: 'Abolish West Point' prof actually condemns all higher education

By Calvin Wolf     Jan 6, 2015 in Politics
West Point - In a controversial article in Salon, a U.S. Naval Academy professor argues that we should end our current use of the U.S. service academies (the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the Naval Academy, the Air Force Academy, and the Coast Guard Academy).
My aunt was a professor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, rising to the rank of colonel. She was also among the first female graduates of that institution, being a freshman (or plebe) the year the first West Point women were commissioned as second lieutenants. Recently retired after thirty years of active duty following her USMA graduation, she is exploring new career options.
As a fellow U.S. service academy professor, I wonder what she thinks of a recent article in Salon written by U.S. Naval Academy professor Bruce Fleming. Fleming, a civilian professor of English at the Naval Academy, is a staunch critic of the institution and has penned a controversial op-ed arguing that we should abolish our use of the four U.S. service academies: The U.S. Military Academy, the U.S. Naval Academy, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
This article generated lots of complex feelings for me. I am the nephew of a West Point graduate and career Army officer and the grandson of two U.S. Army sergeants, one of whom served in World War II and one of whom served in both Korea and Vietnam. I actively considered applying for admission to West Point, but ultimately did not pursue that route. Later, I applied for Army Officer Candidate School after college before being deemed medically ineligible due to childhood asthma.
For three summers during college and graduate school, I was the Service Academy Coordinator at Philmont Scout Ranch, helping train service academy cadets and midshipmen to be backpacking guides for crews of seven to 13 teens and adults. I met many terrific young men and women from the three largest service academies (at the time, the Coast Guard Academy did not participate in the program) — individuals who epitomized the positive stereotypes of the service academies. I also met many individuals who raised questions regarding how, exactly, they gained admittance to one of the most selective universities in the country.
I met cadets and midshipmen who were smart, affable, and open-minded. I met cadets and midshipmen who fit the stereotypes of the gun- and truck-obsessed hunting aficionados who dreamed of military glory. There were preps, jocks, nerds, and hillbillies. Altogether, they seemed far more normal than I had expected prior to becoming the Academy Coordinator: They were closer to typical 19-to-21-year-olds than to idealized soldier-scholars.
Professor Fleming's article in Salon blasts the four U.S. service academies as bloated, outdated, money-wasting pits of nepotism and educational incompetence. The English teacher does more than give it to the academies with both barrels; he gets a second shotgun and continues his screed with vehemence. He asserts that service academies produce, if anything, lower-quality officers than either ROTC programs or officer candidate schools. He says that service academy graduates are often arrogant and disliked by non-academy military personnel. He says that the academies churn out mindless automatons when we need creative thinkers instead.
Ultimately, Fleming appears most disgusted with the alleged hero worship that is directed at, and occurs inside, the U.S. service academies.
Whoa. Whoa. Whoa.
Fleming has stirred up a hornet's nest by attacking the nexus of two of America's most sacred institutions: The military and higher education. The U.S. service academies are supposed to represent the pinnacle of both by being elite educational institutions that produce highly-trained military officers. This civilian professor has just broadly swiped at both by criticizing the academies' academic regimen and the personal qualities of its graduates and its leaders, as well as the generous pay and benefits received by its graduates and its leaders.
But, despite the outrage, is he wrong?
Objectively, it can be hard to argue that the U.S. service academies are financially efficient. It can be hard to argue that its admissions policies are fair. It can be hard to argue that its educational policies are updated to today's needs. Fleming's criticisms are not factually inaccurate.
But, despite the validity of his arguments, are any of his criticisms not simply broad-based criticisms of both the military and public higher education at large?
Perhaps inadvertently, Fleming has condemned higher education as a whole. Given rampant grade inflation, which will only increase once the Obama administration's plans to "grade" colleges and universities roll out in 2018, how many colleges and universities are not money-wasting bastions of nepotism? Even today, public schools waste money on pet projects, unnecessary luxuries, and a culture of self-glorification through sports, clubs, Greek life, and countless traditions. Public schools ignore sexual assault, recruit academically unprepared athletes, and overpay administrators. Public schools produce graduates who are arrogant and don't live up to the hype.
America's higher education is little different from the West Point professor Fleming wishes to abolish.
Similarly, Fleming indicts the entire military, which spends excessively. Can we really condemn the service academies without looking at overall military spending? Of course not.
Professor Fleming should focus his energies on improving higher education and military spending as a whole. Until those are fixed, the service academies will continue to operate inefficiently. Before Fleming condemns, he should know how to improve. He offers nothing in the way of solutions. While I appreciate the man's bravery in confronting sacred cows run amok, I feel his tone is entirely too harsh and roll my eyes at his inability to offer meaningful solutions.
But it has given us lots to think about.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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