October 2007
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Colorguard West Point
Cadets at West Point receive extensive physical education and military training in addition to their academic studies. (Photo courtesy of Army Photo)

General Education for the Nation’s Future Generals

Think about the United States Military Academy at West Point and lots of terms probably come to mind; “Army,” “Long Gray Line,” and “tradition” might be among them. “Liberal education” probably isn’t at the top of the list. But it should be, say faculty at the institution founded to train United States Army officers. Precisely because of its specific mission, West Point—perhaps the most specialized higher education institution in the country—is refining the concept of a liberal education for all students.

Preparing for the Unknown

West Point is in the business of preparing its graduates for uncertainty. After all, says Bruce Keith, the United States Military Academy's director of academic affairs, “It’s not uncommon for our 24- or 25-year-old graduates to end up as mayors of towns in countries they might not have known existed only a few years ago.” But that’s why a wide-ranging liberal education is so important, he says—it lays the foundation for students to anticipate and respond to the ill-defined challenges that confront them. “To what degree can any college predict where its students will end up, or what trajectory they will take?” Keith asks. “We want to create self-directed learners.”

While most U.S. colleges and universities have a general education requirement, it comprises, on average, about 35 percent of the undergraduate curriculum. Conversely, at the United States Military Academy (USMA), all students (called cadets) must take a 30-course general education core that includes English, history, math, chemistry, and physics, as well as philosophy, at least two foreign language courses, law, social science, and more. Cadets also take 15 military science and physical education courses, plus 10 to 14 electives within their major area of study. But the core curriculum constitutes almost 75 percent of students’ academic experience.

Keith knows that West Point’s core curriculum is highly unusual. “From the perspective of some people, our core curriculum might look highly constrained, but it really provides maximum flexibility,” he says. “We provide a foundation for [students] learning on their own.”

West Point Library
The United States Military Academy at West Point requires all students to take a 30-course general education core. (Photo courtesy of Army Photo)

Linking Learning

One way that West Point builds this foundation is by integrating courses within the required core. A few years ago, Colonel Lance Betros, head of the history department, began rethinking the world history survey at USMA, which was “a mile wide and an inch deep,” he says.  Students were having trouble assimilating the course content. In 2005, Betros, Keith, and some of their colleagues undertook a 12-month plan to better integrate subject matter and provide a global context for course content as part of their participation in AAC&U’s Shared Futures: General Education for Global Learning initiative. Shared Futures helped provide a starting point for revamping the history curriculum. “To understand culture and history, one needs to be able to have exposure to language, to regions, to the politics and geography of an area, the economics and religion, and each of these is interrelated. The best approach might be one that integrates these things where they logically overlap,” Keith explains. Foreign language was a rational starting point, as cadets were already required to take at least two foreign language courses in their general education core.

After a departmental review of teaching methods, Betros and his history department colleagues worked with foreign language faculty to integrate history and language learning. Starting in the 2006-7 school year, first-year cadets took Western Civilization in their first semester, and then chose to focus on the history of one of five world regions the second semester: Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, the Far East, or Russia/Central Asia. This year, those students are adding foreign language study of the language spoken in their history area. This approach, Betros says, allows students to better understand history, because they’re learning the relevant language and culture concurrently. There are other possibilities for curriculum integration he’d like to try as well—literature with history, for example.

While the curriculum integration plan is still new, Betros says faculty and student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, and he’s already planning to present its success to the dean, with the goal of integrating curriculum within more of West Point’s 13 academic departments.

Intentional Learning to Prepare Global Citizens

Even the most well-planned general education curriculum won’t succeed if students don’t understand why they’re taking it, and Keith emphasizes that he wants students to see intentionality in the core curriculum. “Some colleges simply believe that exposure to the sciences and humanities is valuable, so the curriculum ends up being a smorgasbord for the student, taking a little of this, a little of that,” he says. “There needs to be intentional connection, to show the curriculum isn’t there by chance.” In that vein, USMA tries to highlight the outcomes students should take away from each course, no matter what the topic. USMA’s academic curriculum goals line up closely with the essential learning outcomes described in AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative and its report, College Learning for the New Global Century. West Point makes clear to its students that graduates should be able to think and act creatively; recognize moral issues and apply ethical considerations in decision making; listen, read, speak, and write effectively; demonstrate the capability and desire to pursue progressive and continued intellectual development; and display proficiency in the areas of world cultures, math, science, engineering, history, information technology, and human behavior.

The USMA curriculum also focuses on the connections between the core and the larger world. Colonel Patricia Dooley, deputy head of the chemistry and life science department, explains that “global” has two meanings at USMA: “We’re preparing students to be citizens of the world, but also their education must prepare them to be literally anywhere on the face of the planet,” she says. This practical need to have graduates ready for worldwide deployment puts the idea of global citizenship into focus. “The more times we can show connections of how [students] will use things outside the little cube of the classroom, the better,” Dooley says.

When cadets graduate from West Point, they will be commissioned as second lieutenants in the U.S. Army, and many will quickly be deployed to some of the 75-plus countries where the Army currently works. In their new postings, graduates will need to assimilate information and make weighty decisions across cultural divides. It’s then that the real value of USMA’s general education core comes into focus for them, Betros says. “In a perfect world, there would be a set of courses that every educated person could take,” he explains, and USMA’s general education core is one approach to this ideal.

Dooley, Betros, and Keith all believe strongly in USMA’s core curriculum and the foundation it provides. In fact, Dooley tells her sophomore students that they shouldn’t worry too much when choosing a major.  “I tell them to do what they want to do. No matter what, the general core here will serve them well,” she says.

For more information about USMA’s general education core, visit the school’s curriculum page. For more information about AAC&U’s work on general education, global learning, and essential learning outcomes, please see our general education and global learning resource pages, our LEAP Web page, and the Shared Futures: General Education for Global Learning Web page.