With the President’s proposed budget and the Quadrennial Defense Review (which can be read as a justification of a budget as much, or more, than outlining strategic thinking), released close to one another, there has been much hand-wringing, lamentations, and apologetics concerning the future of America’s defensive posture, depending upon one’s perspective. One can fairly say that both documents continue recent trends of a leaner personnel structure (with possible increases in the Marines, and not including the National Guard), and an increased reliance upon technological advancements in weaponry and information gathering – with fewer items such as ships, planes, personnel carriers, etc.

Regardless of what one thinks about the current state, or the proposed direction, of U.S. strategic thinking – as reflected in budget proposals and rhetoric – it is quite clear that we expect more from the men and women that protect and represent us abroad. Effectively, we want a small, quick and exceptionally smart force to defend us and keep those that threaten us at bay – oh, and do it relatively cheaply, because we have other things we want to put our money on.

A friend suggested that we train and treat our fighting forces like the ancient Spartans, radically increase their pay into six figures per annum so that we can recruit the best from our high schools and colleges, and keep them for twenty, thirty, years or more. I pointed out that the U.S. of the 21st century does not quite resemble that small, non-materialistic and closed society of 2,400 years ago that mandated universal male service and training starting as a youth, though they fiercely defended their freedom to rule themselves as they thought best. It does not seem like a good bet that future budgets will radically increase the pay of those that serve us. My thought: what about education?

Over the last decade, I have been fortunate to talk with numerous high-ranking officers in all of our armed forces about those in their commands and what they would like to see done better in the future. Four aspects are always present: we have great technology; our men and women are the most lethal fighting force in the world; they are an incredibly talented and dedicated force; and we need to do a better job of educating them, given all that is expected and the scrutiny (think, who is to blame?). To a man, and woman, they talk about the need to give and demand more through education, so that soldiers can handle the inevitable uncertainty and the unexpected; to be problem solvers and innovators; and to have gone through the mental conditioning needed to search for information to develop expertise and answers. Even more, (as George C. Marshall and Omar Bradley demanded of their students), to think as the enemy or disagree with sufficient evidence! As one General put it to me, the college education officers receive must do more than give the technical ability to do their jobs. It must also prepare them for when they are on the ground in Afghanistan, or wherever they are sent. Knowing something of the history, culture, and language of the peoples and places will become increasingly important with relatively fewer men and women being deployed, and more decisions needed to be made in real-time.

The education they referred to is a liberal education. Here we do not mean liberal arts or humanities courses, but a coherent liberal education as developed by Arts, Letters and Science faculty. The kind of education that has both breadth and depth and demands that the brain/mind think and process information differently in diverse contexts – think of a toolbox rather than individual tools. The reality is that we have a fully volunteer force with varied backgrounds. Most do not receive their baccalaureate education from one of service academies (which admit they need to continue to develop liberal learning while inculcating technical knowledge and discipline), but from public or private colleges and universities – places that are well intentioned but focused more on “skills” for the marketplace than developing minds that can develop myriad “skills” throughout life. Think of the current buzz words that apply to those that serve: “leadership,” “ethics,” and ‘character.” These are naturally taught in a liberal education, as opposed to efforts to tag them onto an education outside of the context of life. 

We constantly hear of the need for “knowledge workers.” This really means we need people who can figure things out and broaden their expertise over time. Our national budget priorities demonstrate that we are requiring more from those that volunteer to protect us; let us demand that their education amplify their natural talents and drive so that they can fully do so. What we need, and now expect, of those in the armed forces, is much the same as leading employers need and expect: be able to communicate effectively in writing and speech; be able to work with others in a team environment; and be able to think according to the circumstance and make decisions without recourse to a supervisor. Unfortunately, as recent opinion surveys indicate, our colleges and universities think they are doing what is needed, but those on the hiring side do not agree. Thus, what ails most of us, also can also ail those that serve. And we have not yet touched on the Soul, that which is most affected by a liberal education…