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Educating America's Military

Educating America’s Military, Cass Military Studies, by Joan Johnson-Freese. Routledge, 2012, 160 pp.

Educating America’s Military is a short book that provides a highly critical analysis of senior professional military education (PME). Such appraisals are not novel; however, most have been written from the safety of retirement, civilian universities, or external organizations. Dr. Johnson-Freese, by contrast, is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College. Her decades in PME make the book’s perspective invaluable despite its shortcomings.

Educating America’s Military consists of six chapters. The first two introduce PME and offer a hypothesis regarding its limitations. The body explores these issues in three chapters addressing students, faculty, and curriculum. The conclusion offers recommendations to improve the quality of PME, which the author considers crucial to national security.

Despite the book’s title, Professor Johnson-Freese focuses exclusively on war colleges, a small slice of PME. Her justification disappoints, and her interchangeable use of the terms PME and war colleges misleads. Nevertheless, the author knows her subject well. She describes war colleges’ purpose as providing officers graduate-level learning—uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and broad—to prepare them for greater responsibilities. Yet the schools’ hybrid nature hinders their success. War colleges, she proclaims, are “riddled with the worst problems of military bureaucracy as well as the worst attributes of civilian academia” (p. 13), setting up her two-pronged thesis.

First, Dr. Johnson-Freese claims that war colleges approach learning as training, not education, because “few of those responsible for PME (individually or collectively) have spent much time thinking about the difference between education and training, or even what it means to be ‘educated’ ” (p. 21). Unfortunately, she offers neither supporting evidence nor deep professional insight into these issues. Second, the author argues that military and academic cultures are antithetical. Tensions can be productive, but war colleges define “work habits, definitions of productivity, and views on what constitutes education” principally by military standards (p. 29). This approach produces an environment where process trumps product, clarity is preferred to ambiguity, answers carry more weight than questions, and what is asked more than why.

Professor Johnson-Freese believes that students reinforce this situation. She describes some as among the best anywhere and many as “average or even mediocre . . . [who] like to stay in the comfort zone” (p. 37). Diverse abilities are not surprising in large groups, but she identifies three differences with civilian counterparts that have more troubling implications. First, students are assigned to PME rather than applying, reducing intrinsic motivation. Second, the military believes that all students can complete the program, lowering standards and inflating grades. Third, leadership provides conflicting messages about the experience, fueling student apathy.

Dr. Johnson-Freese then notes that compared to faculty members in civilian colleges, those in PME have minimal say in hiring and governance. Although the latter is somewhat understandable in a military school, she laments the self-imposed obstacles to recruitment. Consequently, war colleges attract “civilian academics whose careers never took off” while also boasting “a surprising number of top-notch civilian academics” (pp. 66, 79). The author is even more critical of military (active and retired) faculty. She claims that many are “not qualified for the position, nor considered the best and the brightest” (p. 70) before conceding that some “can and do play a vital role” (p. 74). Yet she fails to explain how PME could operate without uniformed faculty and dismisses alternative approaches that better distinguish their expertise from that of civilians.

Professor Johnson-Freese is equally scathing in her criticism of war colleges’ core curriculum. She believes that not involving educators in the development of guidance produces vague, general, and unrealistic documents. This explanation ignores the nature of policy, role of deans, and faculty’s general aversion to such administrative tasks. The author is similarly critical of how guidance is implemented. In her telling, nonexperts with varying degrees of teaching prowess present buzzword-laden slides developed by other nonexperts on the topic du jour. She echoes Howard Wiarda’s conclusion that this produces “courses, readings, requirements, grading, etc. . . . of a junior-senior undergraduate course” (p. 97).

Educating America’s Military is a study in ambivalence. Dr. Johnson-Freese offers unflinching, often perceptive observations but then fails to convince readers. She provides anecdotes, not data. The result is professional opinion, not valid and reliable research findings. The book’s tone avoids the hyperbole of similar works while unnecessarily offending. The author identifies cultural differences but then ethnocentrically judges the military by academic standards. Most troublingly, she asserts that PME be benchmarked against “liberal education.” This approach, borne of the Enlightenment, focuses on freethinking and learning for its own sake.

The most appropriate frame of reference for war colleges (and PME in general) is professional education: schools of law, business, medicine, and so forth. This model grew out of Industrialization, emphasizing more focused and practical postvocational learning. Professor Johnson-Freese acknowledges the difference but only late and fleetingly. Nevertheless, she keenly observes that too often civilian faculty are “told that military education is ‘different’ and has a kind of ‘otherness’ that academics need to accept and appreciate, or . . . leave” (p. 98). That is, PME overly emphasizes the m(ilitary) aspects that distinguish it from civilian schooling and minimizes the p(rofessional) and e(ducational) elements that unite them.

Such insights make this book compulsory reading for PME commandants, boards of visitors, educational policy makers, and congressional overseers. These senior leaders must set the conditions to strengthen the system, and Dr. Johnson-Freese will provide them with unvarnished perspectives and blunt recommendations. For most others, the author’s Orbis article “The Reform of Military Education: Twenty-Five Years Later” (Winter 2012, pp. 135–53) should suffice. However, I exhort readers to dedicate the time saved to debating and addressing the issues. Stimulating these processes within PME could be this book’s greatest contribution.

Dr. Johnson-Freese has broken a taboo by writing this book while still employed at a war college. Other faculty, staff, and administrators should be thankful, responding with empirical research and candid introspection rather than defensiveness or indifference. The coming years herald significant challenges for Air Force PME. With budgets tightening, force sizes shrinking, and threats changing, we must think deeply now about our service’s educational future. This book underscores the urgency of striking the right balance between military and academic principles, practices, and personnel. Doing so is our duty and our responsibility, for as Chief of Staff Welsh stated in his Vision, education is “the foundation of our airpower advantage.”

Dr. Brian R. Selmeski

Air University

Maxwell AFB, Alabama

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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