Liberal Education

The Transformation of West Point as a Liberal Arts College

Think of the United States Military Academy and the typical images are of duty, character, leadership, and possibly even regimented conformity. Intellectual liberation, integrative innovation, and holistic development—hallmarks of a liberal education—are not always associated with the public's perception of the West Point experience. Yet, consider this: today's military operates in contexts where uncertainty and ambiguity are commonplace. Human security challenges exacerbated within regional trouble spots are frequently characterized by extreme poverty, a lack of infrastructure, an inability of people within these regions to plug into a globally connected world, and intrastate violence. Such challenges, when coupled with U.S. interests, demand an officer corps capable of responding promptly and effectively to a diverse set of issues in environments that require innovation, flexibility, and adaptability. The army needs officers who have benefitted from a liberal education.

Thomas Friedman (2008) argues that the world is becoming increasingly hot, flat, and crowded. Global warming, the dramatic global rise of middle classes, and rapid population growth are converging in ways that may destabilize the world. Under such conditions, we can expect the world to encounter dramatic increases in health problems, changes in global weather patterns, destabilized food and energy sources, and increased conflict. Friedman contends that we and the rest of the world are not going to be able to regulate our way out of this dilemma. The only way to reverse course is to become more self-sufficient and less reliant on fossil fuels, tap into our insatiable appetite for innovation, and mobilize the U.S. marketplace. The goal is universal connectivity (flat issue), powered by abundant, clean, and cheap energy (energy issue), for a population projected to reach nine billion people by 2050 (crowded issue). Freidman's premise is that the United States needs to take the lead in reinventing what living like us means.

Imagine the creation of a viable energy policy capable of harnessing the U.S. marketplace to deliver on the goal of universal connectivity and the presence of abundant, clean energy. Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, is certainly imagining this possibility. When he spoke to students at West Point in December 2009, he appeared to take a page directly out of Friedman's book in arguing for the invention of clean energy sources and the use of the marketplace to reduce our dependence on oil. The issue, he suggested, is really one of leadership—individuals and institutions with the ability to act as change agents. The questions are ones of preparation and purpose: who will accept responsibility for the education of these leaders, and what type of learning will maximize students' self-understanding, their responsibility to others, and their capacity to act?

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) contends that what really matter in college are the curricular connections that enable students to become informed, responsible, self-directed learners. Liberal education is, at its core, transformational; faculty intentionally develop curricular and cocurricular experiences that liberate the mind from ignorance (the informed piece), cultivate in students a sense of personal and social responsibility (the responsibility component), and empower students to be change agents (the self-directed piece). To prepare students for the unscripted challenges of an ill-defined world—the sort of world described by Friedman and encountered by army officers—AAC&U (2007) advocates for a connected focus on intellectual and practical skills that, when combined with personal and social responsibility, build students' capacities effectively to address the intersecting challenges associated with human cultures and the physical and natural worlds. Essentially, what we need from colleges are more integrated connections and fewer courses. Instead, as Derek Bok (2006) suggests, what is actually provided is a fragmented curriculum with lots of required courses or distributional areas and few connections capable of transforming students into change agents.

Student development

Underlying the AAC&U framework are theories about how students, as humans, develop. While many theories explain how students develop in college or throughout life (see, for example, Evans, Forney, and Guido-DiBrito 1998), their practical value appears to rest more with their similarities than with their differences. As Ken Bain (2004) acknowledges, insofar as not all people develop from the same set of experiences at the same time, we must consider the importance of human development in the design of our curricular frameworks. Human development is essentially the expansion of one's capacity to know oneself and to view the world through multiple lenses. Student development is, at its core, capacity building: the accumulation of knowledge and experience, its connection to intensive practice, and the broadened perspectives generated by intense reflection on the limitations of one's current perspective. To develop students' capacities, faculty must intentionally structure and assess pathways through the connection of curricular and cocurricular activities that evince improvements in students' critical reasoning abilities.

To take one theory, Robert Kegan's (1982) model operates on the basis of what he calls a subject-object distinction. Students' capacities are directly linked to their self-identity where one can become more objective about former perceptions, feelings, or attitudes that had previously been subjective. Kegan suggests that identity progresses from a completely subjective perspective of self-interest through one of reciprocal exchange, then belonging, followed by a personal self-authored code of conduct, and finally the ability to see one's own perspective as an object; this transition maximizes the ability to manage one's self-identity adaptively. Of course, not all people progress through all of these stages. To illustrate, one longitudinal study (Lewis et al. 2005) showed that West Point students typically enter college as self-interested persons (e.g., "tell me what I need to do to get an A") and develop to a point that, by their senior year, they could, on average, demonstrate a sense of belonging and the ability to understand how others view and value them. Thus, the college experience represents a type of learning curve that, even when intentionally structured around desired outcomes, may have upper limits on its ability to assist students in the development of their self-identities.

An understanding of the developmental level of our students is critical if we, as faculty, desire to transform their capacity to be responsible, self-directed learners. If we relegate such issues to a single course or major, how can we ensure that our students cultivate a sense of the second- and third-order consequences of their actions or are empowered to manage the complexities of human and technological interactions? Therein lies the conundrum in higher education: we profess our commitment to liberal education, but then structure students' experiences in ways that potentially minimize the development of new capacities and knowledge. Lacking in our discussions of curricular renewal is a learning model for student development, nested within the unique contexts of our individual institutions. Such models require an assessment of personal readiness, intentional developmental experiences, meaningful venues for student reflection, and the systematic assessment of students' outcomes that, over time, result in demonstrable growth of their capacity to learn.

Curricular renewal at West Point

During the past fifty years, West Point has participated in a journey that has dramatically altered the structure of its curriculum (Forsythe and Keith 2004). From 1802 through 1960, West Point offered students a prescribed curriculum; all students completed the same set of courses. Beginning in 1960, electives were introduced into the curriculum. By 1970, students selected concentrations that, by 1980, became fields of study. Majors were first introduced with the class of 1985 and became a graduation requirement with the class of 2005. Although all students complete a common core curriculum of twenty-six courses, West Point has sought to balance the completion of a breadth component (core curriculum) with the depth of study derived from a disciplinary major. External constraints necessitate that students complete all of the graduation requirements within forty-seven months (eight academic terms).

While such changes reflect evolutionary shifts in structure, they say nothing about student development. This point was underscored in a 1989 institutional accreditation evaluation, whereby the visiting regional accreditation team acknowledged that the institution lacked any discernible justification to describe why students were required to complete a particular set of courses. Furthermore, the school lacked any demonstrable evidence that students actually achieved that which had not yet been articulated. During the past twenty years, we have leveraged this accreditation concern to transform the West Point experience.

Beginning with the general education program (our core curriculum) and expanding outward to include all the curricular and cocurricular experiences of a leader development model, faculty at West Point defined the educated graduate of the Military Academy, provided a rationale and justification for this definition, and designed corresponding learning models for student development (USMA 2007, 2009). I should note, however, that when we began this process of curricular renewal, we could not have conceived that it would reach the point where we are today; we were more focused on the trees than on the forest. We developed an assessment system, initially gathering evidence, largely indirect, from students, graduates, and our graduates' employers, whereby we focused on stakeholders' average and comparative levels of confidence in our graduates' ability to demonstrate achievements in each of the areas guided by the learning model. We then directed attention toward indicators embedded within the curriculum—formative assessments of students' actual work as it pertained to each of the targeted areas in the learning models. We gathered this evidence intentionally and systematically, reporting annually on our findings as a matter of institutional record. We also participated in many activities beyond West Point, including several AAC&U consortia, Project Kaleidoscope initiatives, and the National Survey of Student Engagement. These activities resulted in tremendous introspection on our learning models for student development, on the importance of participatory consensus building, and on the relative merits of the evidence we were gathering.

While we initially created a framework that justified the courses we offered—i.e., protected the status quo—our subsequent assessments revealed gaps that required intense discussion. We learned that our curriculum was compartmentalized, with courses largely disconnected from one another. We learned that we focused much more on content than on the process of learning and student development. We learned that many of our students are risk-adverse and innovate largely within the parameters that we have structured for them. We also learned the critical importance of integrating the process of curricular renewal within the standard operating procedures of the college. This finding has gradually led to a shift in the institution's approach to strategic planning, the alignment of planning with resource management, and the need for developing systematic assessments of institutional effectiveness.

Like any higher educational organization, West Point allocates resources to organizational units (i.e., colleges, departments, centers, etc.). This process of resource management forces units to take responsibility for aspects of the intended student learning outcomes (SLOs), which typically results in a compartmentalization of the outcomes. The connection of curricular components across units is necessary if the institution is to develop in students the capacities underscored by the learning model. Achieving a viable interface between organizational units and SLOs requires the presence of a set of checks and balances. The units report annually on how they expended resources provided to them by the institution and the extent to which those expenditures align with the SLOs. Independent assessment teams composed of faculty and staff representatives of the various organizational units concurrently assess and report annually on students' achievement of the SLOs reflected in the learning model. In principle, this process provides a healthy tension between how we resource units and what our students learn; however, the institution has not yet evolved to a point where this has become common practice.

We are beginning to recognize our need to identify curricular and cocurricular activities that sit at the intersection of several dimensions of the Military Academy's (2009) learning model for student development. For example, through conversations with students, I have discovered that they often believe the most integrative, meaningful connections occur in the summer immersion experiences. Not a single student has suggested to me that the most significant transformational experiences in their undergraduate program have occurred in a single course product (e.g., an exam or a paper). If our aim is to develop in students the capacity to synthesize information and draw connections across experiential domains, we are not going to achieve that goal with a central focus on individual, largely disconnected courses. Thus, our goal is to create intentional, hands-on cocurricular learning experiences that connect to aspects of the core curriculum and disciplinary majors.

Education in a world that is hot, flat, and crowded requires immersing students in meaningful educational experiences that are removed from the comfortable confines of a college campus. This point resonates particularly well for graduates of the Military Academy, who, within the first few years of their careers, will likely be deployed throughout the world. Accordingly, during the past five years, we have increased participation in our international summer immersion and semester study abroad programs from less than 2 percent of a graduating class to upward of 50 percent. During the summer of 2009, for example, approximately 450 students participated in cultural immersion experiences in over fifty countries. These experiences typically last for three to four weeks during the summer and represent an extension of in-depth learning that draws on the core curriculum and major programs. Similarly, during the current academic year, nearly 150 students spent one semester attending a college in one of sixteen countries where English is not the primary language. Students are placed with host families, enroll full time in a local university, and complete at least three of their five courses in a language other than English.

How do students actually benefit from educational experiences that transfer learning from one context to another? Let me illustrate with a couple of examples. Charles Nadd, a West Point social science major from the class of 2011, traveled alone on a three-week summer experience to Monrovia while working for a nongovernmental organization in Liberia (the Society for Women and AIDS in Africa). Within a short time after his arrival, Nadd realized that the organization lacked a Web site and any connection to the outside world; consequently, he volunteered to develop one for them based on his recollection of material gleaned from a combination of core and elective courses. He also employed knowledge from his two years of French language classes to create a parallel site for the local community ( Similarly, Jonathan Turnbull and Stuart McFarlane, members of the class of 2010 who are majoring in geospatial information science and human geography, respectively, spent three weeks in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Although they are not engineers, their three-course engineering sequence (a core curriculum requirement) prepared them to design and build two footbridges with the villagers of Kikongo. These bridges provided a critical link with neighboring villages and a hospital. Without knowledge of the local dialect, and with few Congolese who spoke English, Turnbull and McFarlane relied on the use of adaptive communication techniques to complete their work.

An additional educational experience, referred to as the "village scenario," is intentionally structured within the summer military experience conducted at West Point. This exercise places Farsi and Dari speakers in native dress to act as locals within ongoing military maneuvers, which adds a realistic dose of civilian interaction similar to situations that have played out repeatedly in recent international conflicts. The scenario, which is intended to develop students' leadership and ethical decision-making capabilities under stress, requires students to work with translators in order to understand the concerns and issues of a local population and act in a manner that minimizes the unintended second- and third-order consequences of their actions. Students work through several of these encounters and reflect on the experiences with one another, the native language speakers, and seasoned staff and faculty.

We are also discovering that student development requires meaningful venues for reflection that are connected to ill-defined challenges. Transformational learning is, after all, a social act that requires collaborative reflection involving students, peers, and mentors (Eyler 2009). While the problems themselves may represent intentionally structured challenges located at the intersection of several dimensions of an institution's learning model, mechanisms that allow for reflection must be present if students are to work through the friction and tension generated by their participation in these experiences. To capture venues for student reflection across curricular and cocurricular activities, we are beginning to assess the feasibility of a student-designed e-portfolio prototype. This e-portfolio operates much like a Facebook page that is linked to the military profession. Conceptually, the e-portfolio provides students with opportunities to post selected course products on their individual pages and network with fellow students and mentors, including faculty and active-duty army officers. In connecting students to professionals and mentors, the e-portfolio creates a venue for dialogue and meaningful feedback. Students also have opportunities to review "leader challenges," which feature short videos of actual unscripted leadership challenges experienced by current army officers, and participate in discussions of role-playing scenarios that enhance their situational awareness and capacity to manage competing perspectives.

Connecting disparate curricular and cocurricular experiences through a model for student development requires the presence of integrators—persons responsible for working directly with individual students to facilitate connections among experiences, reflection, and growth. West Point organizes its 4,500 students into thirty-two companies and assigns two full-time staff members to work with each unit. These two staff members consist of a tactical officer (TAC)—a captain or major with recent field experience—and a noncommissioned officer. Together, they are the glue that holds together the various components of West Point's learning model for student development. These staff members are essentially counselors on steroids. They work closely with their assigned units to monitor student development; students identified as struggling in one or more areas generally receive special attention. In principle, the TACs work with faculty and staff to develop in each student the capacity to reach his or her potential. Admittedly, the TACs are overworked and spend most of their time helping to remediate the bottom third of the class; West Point could benefit from an additional thirty-two TACs.


America admires West Point because West Point has delivered for America. Jeff Immelt, during his visit to West Point, trotted out several executives who were West Point graduates. He noted that General Electric has upward of 250 senior executives who graduated from the Military Academy, implying that West Point underscores a commitment to service, discipline, and learning that is rather unique among colleges. The history department at West Point has a saying: "the history we teach was made by those we taught." On the surface, such a statement may seem arrogant, but in reality it reflects the traits and outcomes highlighted by Immelt. West Point, the first engineering college established in the United States, populated those that followed for nearly a century. Its graduates took the lead in building for the United States its canals, transportation routes, and interstates, and participated in the development of the space program and its subsequent exploration. West Point is an institution that has produced two U.S. presidents and taken a leading role in every major armed conflict in the history of the United States.

These past achievements, while laudable, do not obstruct our ability to recognize that the environment in which we operate has changed and that those changes require adjustments in how we educate students. We must meet our students where they stand and transform their capacities through mechanisms for self-empowerment. Today, West Point is, first and foremost, a liberal arts college with a focus on transformational learning. Without question, our graduates' outcomes depend on our success in this endeavor. Our faculty are of one mind that our graduates must be an essential part of the solution to the nation's challenges, and not a part of the problem.

The continued success of higher education in the United States is contingent upon our individual and collective abilities to draw meaningful connections between education and global challenges that, if unresolved, will demonstrably affect our country and the world. If the purpose of the undergraduate experience is to develop in students the capacity to be informed, responsible, self-directed learners who are capable of addressing the unscripted challenges that will confront the next generation of Americans, then we in higher education appear to be well short of the mark. The breadth inherent in a general education program must be connected meaningfully to the depth of study associated with majors programs. A predominate focus on majors with limited connections to general education and cocurricular activities develops students who will have difficulty traversing disciplinary divides and who have acquired skills that quickly become outdated in this rapidly changing global environment.

Instead, we must educate undergraduate students broadly and deeply, assisting them in drawing connections between various experiences, so that they can anticipate and respond effectively to a changing contextual landscape. We in higher education must collectively ensure that our students achieve the learning outcomes consistent with the goals of liberal education. Our nation and the world depend on our collective success in this endeavor.


Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2007. College learning for the new global century: A report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America's Promise. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Bain, K. 2004. What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bok, D. 2006. Our underachieving colleges: A candid look at how much students learn and why they should be learning more. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Evans, N. J., D. S. Forney, and F. Guido-DiBrito. 1998. Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Eyler, J. 2009. The power of experiential education. Liberal Education 95 (4): 24–31.

Forsythe, G. B., and B. Keith. 2004. The evolving USMA academic curriculum: 1952–2002. In West Point: Two centuries and beyond, ed. L. Betros, 370–89. West Point, NY: United States Military Academy.

Friedman, T. 2008. Hot, flat, and crowded: Why we need a green revolution and how it can renew America. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Immelt, J. 2009. Renewing American leadership. Washington Post,

Kegan, R. 1982. The evolving self: Problem and process in human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Lewis, P., G. B. Forsythe, P. Sweeney, P. Bartone, C. Bullis, and S. Snook. 2005. Identity development during the college years: Findings from the West Point longitudinal study. Journal of College Student Development 46 (4): 357–73.

United States Military Academy. 2007. Educating future army officers for a changing world. West Point, NY: United States Military Academy,

——. 2009. Building capacity to lead: The West Point system for leader development. West Point, NY: United States Military Academy,

Bruce Keith is professor of sociology and associate dean for academic affairs at the United States Military Academy.

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