Liberal Education

America's Service Academies, Your Service Academies

We are America’s three largest service academies: Air Force, Navy, and Army. For each of our respective services, we are the primary undergraduate institutions and commissioning sources that educate and develop the officers who are expected to lead this nation’s armed forces. We are special places that have special “missions”—to develop leaders of character who will serve our country, with honor and with courage, and who upon conclusion of their military service will continue to lead the nation in whatever occupation they choose to follow. We all focus on leadership development and service; we all insist upon honor and integrity; we all stress courage and commitment, both mental and physical. We have much in common. And one of the things that we have in common is the ever present challenge to explain what it is that we do, and why we do it.

When you work at a military service academy, everyone is your constituent. Literally everyone has expectations of and interest in the service academies; many know someone who’s been a cadet or midshipman at an academy, or someone who has served there; everyone feels like they “own” part of each academy—and in some respects that’s true, because our funding comes from Congress. Every time a service academy makes news—good or bad—everyone takes an interest. For us, public advocacy is a high-stakes discussion; everyone has an opinion, everyone wants a say. The Naval Academy, by virtue of its close proximity to Washington, DC, is cited in the Washington Post nearly every week. The same can be said for West Point and the New York Times. And most people read the articles about us precisely because it is Navy, West Point, or Air Force that’s being reported upon; there isn’t typically the same level of interest concerning most other educational institutions. Perhaps the bottom line is this: in answer to the question, whom do you serve? or what is your purpose? the three major service academies share a common and special answer. We serve the defense of our nation by educating, training, inspiring, and aspiring to develop America’s sons and daughters into the leaders who will be charged with that effort. In this way, we serve every American citizen.

The three major service academics have much in common, and much that is different as well. The similarities between us tend to be obvious (and are just as obvious as the differences between us and most civilian universities). As military service academies, we are full immersion programs. We significantly control most aspects of our students’ lives, from their first day in late June/early July to commissioning day in late May nearly forty-seven months later. Everyone knows about our required uniforms, parades and formations, challenging physical demands, and honor and conduct systems. As you might guess, we also require various forms of professional military training, including the use of weapons and weapon systems, and provide significant exposure to and immersion in leadership principles for military officers. We also control and closely monitor the many facets of academic life, from class attendance and course selection to semester credit loads and mandatory study hours. We are institutions that foster good order and discipline, and we develop that in young men and women ranging in age from about eighteen to twenty-six. It’s an understatement to say that we live and work in a structured environment! This we each have in common.

But these are only a few of the most visible similarities among our three academies and, in turn, the differences between what we do at our academies and what is typically done in civilian colleges and universities. Of course, there are many other differences as well, and there are even differences between the three academies. Our aim here, however, is to discuss the similarities we have with the vast majority of higher education institutions. In fact, in many of the most fundamental respects, we are not so different from a typical civilian college or university.

Liberal education at the service academies

While each of our service academies uses different words to express our desired educational student learning outcomes, we think there is commonality in what we expect of all our graduates. We emphasize the creation of scholar-warriors, and we take to heart the words attributed to Thucydides: “The nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.” Accordingly, we seek to develop leaders of character, selfless leaders who think first of others (exemplified, for example, in the Navy ethos of “ship . . . shipmate . . . self”); who value diversity and inclusion and the quality inherent in surrounding yourself with differing opinions, perspectives, and experiences; and who create a respectful, ethical, and professional command climate through their own personal integrity and moral courage. We value inspirational leadership, the concept that great leaders inspire their teams to accomplish the most challenging missions, and do so by example through mental and physical toughness and by demonstrating resilience. Our graduates are expected to be consummate professionals, role models for those whom they lead, and most importantly to project to the world the values, the understanding, and the humanity that define our nation. We know that in many cases the first and perhaps only American that an individual from a foreign country will ever encounter will be one of our graduates. In that moment of first impression, we take a big step toward either gaining a friend or ally, or toward creating a lifelong enemy. Our graduates must represent our very best and be dedicated to the values of our services and to the Constitution of the United States.

Moreover, we seek graduates who are technically proficient in the basics of science, technology, and engineering, and who have developed a commitment to lifelong learning. We develop critical thinkers and creative problem solvers who are innovative decision makers and have a bias for action. They must be articulate, both orally and in writing; they must be adaptable to their circumstances and environments; and they must understand and appreciate global and cross-cultural dynamics, the history of regions and peoples, and the social dynamics of interpersonal relations.

At first glance, this description of our institutional educational learning outcomes may seem quite different from the typical educational learning outcomes of other four-year colleges and universities. But we don’t think they are. We think they satisfy the essence of a liberal education as defined by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U): “Liberal Education is an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g., science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of personal and social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical, and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.” 

In fact, the work associated with AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative has been quite useful to the service academies (see The LEAP essential learning outcomes align well with the institutional goals and varied curricular frameworks at each of the service academies. Consider an example from the Air Force Academy. In 2006, an Air Force Academy team attending the AAC&U Greater Expectations Summer Institute first learned of the LEAP initiative and its corresponding learning outcomes. These LEAP outcomes, combined with an emerging set of parallel Air Force “core competencies,” served as important top-down guidance to supplement the educational learning outcomes the Air Force Academy already had developed through its previous bottom-up processes. The result was a major revision of the prior educational outcomes, with a focus on making the new institutional outcomes concise, memorable, and consistent with both Air Force doctrine and best practices in higher education (see fig. 1 at the end of this article). These institutional outcomes embody the intent and spirit of the Air Force Academy mission and are, today, the focal point of everyone’s efforts at the Air Force Academy, regardless of whether they teach in the core curriculum, in a major program, in military training, in athletics, or in the Air Force Academy’s signature airmanship programs. This has helped the Academy work in a much more integrated way than it had in the past—better supporting this “both Athens and Sparta” institution. Indeed, at the Air Force Academy, all of the mission partners of the Academy curriculum and course of instruction (academic, military, athletic, and airmanship) now work together toward these shared educational learning outcomes. Aligning the new outcomes with the LEAP essential learning outcomes was a key step in making this so.

More generally, the academic programs at each of our service academies are structured in similar ways, with all cadets and midshipman required to take a large number of required “core” courses (approximately 60–75 percent of their total credits) in addition to courses leading to a major. Our students also complete a significant number of credit hours in physical education and military science or military strategic studies classes, typically at least eight credit hours of physical education and another twenty or so of military science/military strategic studies and leadership. Concepts supporting each academy’s institutional learning outcomes are progressively developed and reinforced throughout the curriculum, and integrated in various courses. Each academy places a strong emphasis on practical applications in its program and course learning models, and also provides educational enrichment activities such as semester abroad programs, research work, and internships, typically with governmental agencies so students can practice what they learn. Throughout the forty-seven-month experience, character and leadership development is emphasized through both experiential learning opportunities and structured Socratic exchanges. But, regardless of the details of our programs, the educational structure at each of our service academies emphasizes the essential learning outcomes of LEAP.

The LEAP essential learning outcomes

The LEAP framework categorizes essential learning outcomes into four overarching categories: (1) knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world (2) intellectual and practical skills, (3) personal and social responsibility, and (4) integrative and applied learning. While all three service academics stress intellectual and practical skills, the precise details vary from one to another. But there are several themes in common among all three, the most significant being the concept of providing an intellectually challenging program of study that emphasizes practical applications and projects with an expectation of high standards of excellence. As the academic deans of our academies, we like to remind people that no one chooses to attend a service academy because it is easy. Our students are looking for a challenge! And that challenge is based in a strong core program—consisting of over half of the semester hours of the general education program—requiring a proficiency in technical disciplines, such as mathematics, computing, chemistry, and physics; humanities disciplines, such as history and English; social science disciplines, such as political science; and, in some cases, one of several foreign languages. But not one of our graduates is enrolled with the goal of becoming a mathematician, chemist, historian, writer, etc. Our graduates are learning to lead and to do so in a wartime environment. So in each of our core disciplines, we emphasize critical thinking, inquiry and analysis, problem solving, and communication. Throughout these core disciplines, we foster teamwork, decision making (often under stress), and commitment and discipline. These are the enduring skills that will enable our graduates to be successful leaders, regardless of their individual academic interests.

Every institution of higher learning is presented with social and cultural challenges associated with transitioning young adults into educated and responsible citizens. In keeping with our shared service academy mission “to produce leaders of character,” our shared goal is to create a culture where dignity and respect for self and others is the foundation for all aspects of life at our respective service academies. We all emphasize in our educational learning outcomes intentional efforts to develop in our graduates personal and social responsibility, specifically civic knowledge and engagement; local and global intercultural knowledge and competence; ethical reasoning and action; and foundations and skills for lifelong learning. These are anchored through active involvement with diverse communities and real-world challenges. 

At each of the academies, courses in foreign language are not just about language as a technical competency, but also about learning how to interact in and understand a culture different from one’s own. Ethical reasoning is not an academic concept studied only in a core philosophy course, but something applied very personally in many settings including day-long character enrichment seminars, for example, wherein volunteer adult facilitators engage cadets in personal small group discussions about how the cadets might handle real-world moral dilemmas that these facilitators themselves experienced personally. At the Air Force Academy, in the required senior course in English, all cadets prepare a capstone speech and essay addressing the moral and ethical dilemmas inherent in service as a military professional and warrior. They wrestle with the reality that the commission as officers they are about to accept requires them to respect, uphold, and protect the dignity and worth of individual human beings, even as they might be called to fight and kill others.

One of the many nice things about serving at our military academies is that faculty understand it is essential to provide our cadets and midshipmen with integrated and applied learning opportunities in order to prepare them for military service in the twenty-first century. Each of our academies provides multiple, progressive learning opportunities across our key curricular areas and through educational enrichment activities. Our faculty composition directly contributes to this integrative and applied learning environment; many of our faculty and staff members are military officers who have recently served in the environments our graduates will encounter, so they easily provide context and demonstrate relevant application to classroom and other learning opportunities. The military faculty and staff are partnered with our civilian faculty who infuse the depth of disciplinary expertise and pedagogy for teaching and learning into our classrooms. In the academic arena, following the LEAP framework, the curriculum is designed to build an essential knowledge foundation, provide focused application of knowledge in specific disciplinary areas, and then integrate knowledge and application across disciplines through the medium of senior research design or thesis projects in the student’s major. Each academy has robust relationships with their service and other governmental organizations that provide problem domains for such work, and in return these organizations receive highly valued, creative solutions to difficult, real-world issues. 

By the very nature of our institutions, much integration and applied learning naturally occurs outside of our academic programs. Militarily, our cadets and midshipmen are required to complete training that progressively develops them from being a good team member to being a good team leader. They are put into positions of increasing responsibility in which they have to understand and synthesize lessons learned from previous experiences in order to lead successfully. Each academy also has specific curricula designed to teach and reinforce personal and social responsibility, and ethical conduct.  Lessons are typically taught within the context of applied situations typically encountered at the academy or in military service. Cadets and midshipmen have to understand these lessons and apply them within the context of their leadership positions and in being a good citizen of the academy. Educational enrichment activities such as research, internships, study abroad opportunities, competitive athletics, and academic and social student clubs also provide significant applied learning opportunities for integrating knowledge and experiences across our key curricular areas (academic, military, physical, moral-ethical). Your service academies have had great success with using the integrative and applied learning concepts of the LEAP initiative.


Military service academies are unique in many respects. We certainly have our own culture and, in many ways, a different approach to educating our students because of our mission to develop leaders for the nation’s defense. Lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate that our military needs scholar-warriors who can seamlessly and successfully operate in the context of both “Athens and Sparta.” But, while our approach may be different, we remain committed to providing the very best of what a liberal education represents. The educational learning outcomes differ somewhat between each of the service academies due to the needs of our respective services, but each of us develops our graduates using the powerful educational framework advanced by AAC&U’s LEAP initiative. We learn and grow together, and we challenge each other to continue to raise the bar of excellence. General Douglas MacArthur said it best: “On the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that on other days and other fields will bear the fruits of victory.”

This makes serving at America’s service academies—your service academies—a truly rewarding and fulfilling experience, an honor, a privilege, and an important responsibility in service to our nation.


Mission Statement


Beginning in school, and continuing at successively higher levels across their college studies, students should prepare for twenty-first-century challenges by gaining:

Knowledge of Human Cultures and the Physical and Natural World

  • Through study in the sciences and mathematics, social sciences, humanities, histories, languages, and the arts

Focused by engagement with big questions, both contemporary and enduring

Intellectual and Practical Skills, including

  • Inquiry and analysis
  • Critical and creative thinking
  • Written and oral communication
  • Quantitative literacy
  • Information literacy
  • Teamwork and problem solving

Practiced extensively across the curriculum, in the context of progressively more challenging problems, projects, and standards for performance

Personal and Social Responsibility, including

  • Civic knowledge and engagement—local and global
  • Intercultural knowledge and competence
  • Ethical reasoning and action
  • Foundations and skills for lifelong learning

Anchored through active involvement with diverse communities and real-world challenges

Integrative and Applied Learning, including

  • Synthesis and advanced accomplishment across general and specialized studies

Demonstrated through the application of knowledge, skills, and responsibilities to new settings and complex problems

U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA)

To educate, train, and inspire men and women to become officers of character motivated to lead the United States Air Force in service to our nation


Commission leaders of character who embody the Air Force core values . . .Integrity—Service—Excellence

Committed to Societal, Professional, and Individual Responsibilities

  • Ethical reasoning and action
  • Respect for human dignity
  • Service to the nation
  • Lifelong development and contributions
  • Intercultural competence and involvement

Empowered by integrated Intellectual and Warrior Skills

  • Quantitative and information literacy
  • Oral and written communication
  • Critical thinking
  • Decision making
  • Stamina
  • Courage
  • Discipline
  • Teamwork

Grounded in essential Knowledge of the Profession of Arms and the Human & Physical Worlds

  • Heritage and application of air, space, and cyberspace power
  • National security and full spectrum of joint and coalition warfare
  • Civic, cultural, and international environments
  • Ethics and the foundations of character
  • Principles of science and the scientific method
  • Principles of engineering and the application of technology

U.S. Military Academy (USMA)

To educate, train, and inspire the Corps of Cadets so that each graduate is a commissioned leader of character committed to the values of Duty, Honor, Country and prepared for a career of professional excellence and service to the Nation as an officer in the United States Army


West Point develops commissioned leaders of character prepared for intellectual, ethical, social, and physical demands across the broad spectrum of challenges in professional military service.

Our curriculum is purposefully integrated such that upon commissioning West Point graduates will

  • lead and inspire their units to accomplish the mission;
  • embrace their role as a United States Army officer;
  • demonstrate a broad perspective that is open to new ideas and experiences;
  • understand ambiguous situations and solve complex problems;
  • make sound and timely decisions under stress; 
  • communicate effectively with all audiences;
  • demonstrate proficiency in the military and physical skills required to succeed in combat;
  • demonstrate mental and physical toughness—with the strength of spirit to persevere and win;
  • demonstrate respect for others and work effectively with different cultures and people;
  • live honorably—with uncompromising integrity.

U.S. Naval Academy (USNA)

To develop Midshipmen morally, mentally, and physically and to imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor, and loyalty in order to graduate leaders who are dedicated to a career of naval service and have potential for future development in mind and character to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship and government


We accomplish our mission by graduating midshipmen who are warriors ready to meet the demands of a country at war or at peace. Our graduates are:

Selfless: Selfless leaders who value diversity and create an ethical command climate through their example of personal integrity and moral courage

Inspirational: Mentally resilient and physically fit officers who inspire their team to accomplish the most challenging missions and are prepared to lead in combat

Proficient: Technically and academically proficient professionals with a commitment to continual learning

Innovative: Critical thinkers and creative decision makers with a bias for action

Articulate: Effective communicators, both orally and in writing

Adaptable: Adaptable individuals who understand and appreciate global and cross-cultural dynamics

Professional: Role models dedicated to the profession of arms, the traditions and values of the Naval Service, and the constitutional foundation of the United States

Dana H. Born is dean of the faculty at the United States Air Force Academy. Andrew T. Phillips is academic dean and provost at the United States Naval Academy. Timothy E. Trainor is dean of the academic board at the United States Military Academy. The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official policies of the Unites States Air Force, United States Navy, United States Army, or the Air Force Academy, Naval Academy, or West Point. This article is in the public domain.

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