Saturday, April 24, 2010

Waste Land

“April is the cruellest month….”
-- T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”

My older son just wrote a term paper on T. S. Eliot for his AP English class. He asked me to proofread it before he submitted it.

Reading over my son’s words – and the embedded snippets of Eliot’s poetry – made me start to think.

Always a dangerous proposition….

I realized that I was not sure if I had ever read any poetry by T. S. Eliot before.

This was profoundly disturbing to me.

Yes, I knew that T. S. Eliot was a 20th Century poet, most famous for having written “The Waste Land.” And that “The Waste Land” was widely regarded as a work of art reflecting the views of the post-WWI “lost generation.”

There was a nagging part of my brain telling me that I was “supposed” to have read “The Waste Land” for some English class or another, but I have no recollection of ever having done so.

I am stunned that my cultural literacy is so devoid of knowledge and familiarity with such an important poet.

Embarrassed, actually.

Truthfully, I feel as though my mind is in some ways a cultural Waste Land.

I am missing a lot of important “stuff.”

One of the things I most regret about my West Point education was the dearth of literature, philosophy, and critical thinking – hell, thinking of any kind!

Yes, sure, we had a very diverse core curriculum, which included a course in English, a course in philosophy. Very few of my courses required me to do much thinking, though. There was a lot of what cadets called “spec and dump.” Memorization and regurgitation. Of facts, information, dates, formulas. If you were good at memorizing and regurgitating – and you were willing to put forth the effort to do so – then you probably did well academically at West Point.

Which is not to say that I think people who did well there were not intelligent. I think that one could be very intelligent and thoughtful and someone good at memorizing and regurgitating. I also think that one could be very intelligent, but not so good at memorizing and regurgitating. Or unwilling -- or too lazy -- to memorize and regurgitate ad nauseam.

I personally liked the fact that we had such a diverse curriculum. That no matter what we majored in, even if it was English or history, we still got a Bachelor of Science degree, because we had to take so many math, science, and engineering courses.

What I didn’t like was that the atmosphere there was so intense, so fast-paced, so geared on “accomplishing the mission,” which meant getting the work done. Not so much learning anything. Or thinking too much or too hard.

I am sure there are many who would argue that because West Point is a training ground for future Army officers, the educational mission there is much different than at other institutions of higher learning. The Army doesn’t “pay you to think.” The Army pays you to lead your soldiers, accomplish your mission.

All well and good.

I would just say that training unthoughtful leaders is unwise.

Or, rather, that not training leaders to be thoughtful is unwise.

When I think back on my West Point education, besides all of the memorizing and regurgitating, I remember the emphasis being on problem solving (which I think is good), but problem solving that always leads you to one right answer. And that would be the answer you would have to underline twice and annotate with “Ans.” for “answer.” And there was always a right answer. As in a correct answer.

An approved solution.

I understand in math and chemistry and physics and engineering the need to show your work, step by step, and to come to some definitive answer, which, hopefully, is “correct.”

In philosophy or English or literature, not so much.

I can remember my philosophy professor – and we did have one required course in philosophy – half jokingly telling us that our answers, our essays, did not have to be underlined twice and have “Ans.” at the end. He was an Army officer, a West Point grad, so he knew what the system was like. He was a combat arms officer, I am sure, as West Point liked to make sure the Ps in their “warm and fuzzy” departments were “real men.” Even warriors can do philosophy.

As I remember it, the focus of our core philosophy course was on just and unjust wars, which I think was a wise topic for cadets to study. However, we never had a basic philosophy course, one where we examined basic philosophical questions, read the great philosophers, discussed what they wrote and thought. Discussed what we thought.

I had two English courses at West Point. That’s it. They were core plebe English classes, first semester focusing on writing and second semester a brief survey of American literature. This was an advanced level plebe English track, as I had taken enough English in high school and tested out of the basic English track. The problem with this was that it also meant I had tested out of the mandatory cow year English course. Which meant that I never read classics like “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer.

And maybe “The Waste Land,” too.

I find it amazing, in retrospect, that I only had to take two very basic, simple English courses my entire college career.

Even more fascinating to me is that I never realized that I could have taken more English courses. That I could have taken electives in English. I could have even majored in English. I cannot tell you why I did not realize this. I just know that it is true. Clearly, no one ever pointed out to me or emphasized the possibility. I only realized it years later, when I ran into someone who had graduated from West Point just after me and had majored in… English.


If I had been more cognizant and aware as a cadet, would I have majored in English? I don’t know. But I think I would have at least taken a few electives in English.

A few years ago, I read Elizabeth Samet’s book Soldier’s Heart on the importance of literature and reading for cadets, for helping make them become more thoughtful leaders. I loved the book, enjoyed reading it immensely and was glad to see this point of view. Of course, what struck me right off the bat was the fact that Samet was a civilian professor.

We did not have any civilian professors when I was at West Point. Well, OK, there might have been one or two, but I never had one. The only time I ever had a civilian professor in college was during an exchange semester at the Air Force Academy for an international relations course. That was probably the best course I ever took as an undergrad period. Which is not to say that I think civilian professors are necessarily better than military ones. I am sure that is not a truism. But there is a huge difference.

When I was at West Point, most of the Ps were senior captains or young majors, who had served in tactical units and had a company command and then been sent back to grad school by the Army to a get a master’s degree and return to teach at West Point for three years. They were, for the most part, upwardly mobile, gung ho young officers; they were not necessarily subject matter experts in their fields. There were also permanent professors, more senior military officers who had been selected to get their doctorates and return to West Point to teach for the rest of their military careers. These professors tended to be more academic in nature and knowledge and experience. They had chosen, or been chosen, to fulfill their military careers as professors and not as brigade or division or corps commanders or senior level staff officers. They were all lieutenant colonels or full colonels.

I had several permanent professors while at West Point, and most were outstanding and engaging. Most of my regular Ps were fine, too, for that matter. But I am not sure that any of them ever really made me think.

At least not too much or too hard.

One of the reasons I wanted to go to West Point was because I wanted to be in an environment where I would be really, really challenged. And, overall, West Point was that sort of environment, but the challenge came more from the combination of military, physical, leadership, and academic requirements and demands. I was always wistful that I was never truly challenged academically, or mentally. Sure, we had to take a lot of courses and they were most often very demanding, but the demand was more in time management, attention to detail, and completing the mission. We were good at solving problems, especially when there was an approved solution to find.

But were we encouraged to be thoughtful or questioning?

Were we asked to think outside the box?

Were we asked to tackle any serious questions with serious thought and debate?

I will not speak for others, as everyone’s experience at West Point is his or her own, but I can say that, unequivocally, I was never required to wrestle mentally with anything in any challenging way. I had to take self defense, yes, in PE, and the male cadets had to take boxing. We all learned how to fight with bayonets. How to low crawl, high crawl, maneuver over terrain, and drive tanks. All of these skills were obviously highly important to people training to become officers in the Army where they might be called on to do these skills and train others and lead soldiers into combat or at least support soldiers in combat. I am not denying that all of these skills are vital ones. I am just saying that I think real leaders need to be able to think in a deep and meaningful way.

Another thing that surprised me about Samet’s book was how much more aware and engaged the cadets she portrayed seemed than any of us had ever been. It seemed like they actually read the books assigned to them in English classes and were capable of thinking about them and discussing them in a meaningful way. Maybe my memory is just bad. Maybe we were more aware and engaged than I remember us being. I just remember everything being so intense and fast-paced that there never was any time for thinking. We were lucky if we got the reading accomplished. Plus, I think a lot of cadets took pride in “getting by.” Doing the minimum to succeed. Many took pride in the whole “spec and dump” approach, in how little they had to study or work. Many cadets would brag that they had pulled an “all nighter” to cram in a semester’s worth of work in one night; they would embrace the guiding mantra “RD = FC” (rough draft = final copy) as if that were a good thing.

Maybe these phenomena are seen everywhere, to one extent or another, at every single college campus in America.

I just think that critical thinking skills are important for all young people to have, and especially so for young military officers. I also think that genuine exposure to literature and art and philosophy are important in helping develop those critical thinking skills.

I hope that the West Point of today is actually like what Samet describes. And that the cadets are more engaged and challenged intellectually. I know that there are more civilian professors there, who can lend a different perspective and knowledge base, to the educational experience. I think a mix of military and civilian professors is probably a good thing. I hope that critical thinking is a more integrated part of the West Point experience. And I hope that cadets are encouraged to read books and literature. And to ask the difficult questions that have no approved solution.

That may have no solution.

I feel that in times of crisis and battle, the leader who has read and thought in addition to his other training and education, will lead his or her men and women more effectively.

That said, I think I have a lot of reading to catch up on.


Post a Comment

<< Home