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Lessons from Professional Military Education

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Scott Cook
August 11, 2017


On December 7, 1796 George Washington made his last address to Congress as President of the United States. He reiterated his appeal for the Congress to establish a national institution similar to a military academy for the purpose of educating citizens and public servants “in the science of Government.” Over 150 years later, Leonard White, in the 1955 edition of his public administration textbook suggested using military staff and war colleges as models for educating civilian public administrators. Thus, the military education system has long been considered a leader in the education of public servants.

However, more recently, retired Major General Robert H. Scales, PhD, a former commandant of the U.S. Army War College asserted the military has become “Too Busy to Learn.” While acknowledging the military’s past excellence as a pioneer in distance learning, the inventor of the case-study method, and a developer of objective means for assessment, he contends current high operational tempos have pushed the military’s interest in education to the background.

Being “too busy” is not a phenomenon confined to the military. Most practitioners, both public and private, find it difficult to make enough time for professional education. While there are problems in the military education system, they are finding ways to adapt education and training to these busy and complex times, and can still offer some valuable principles, or at least good reminders, on professional education. The Army General Command and Staff College has identified education principles and desired learning outcomes that it believes will increase the quality of education. Three of these principles and outcomes offer broader lessons for teaching public servants and administrators. First, the purpose of professional education is to make students better practitioners. Second, teaching institutions must also be learning organizations. And third, it is important to promote professional development through self study and lifelong learning.

The primary job of military education is to make students better soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. To do this, educators must prepare their students to perform both routine activities and complex operations. This is accomplished through a combination of training and education:   practical training for certainty and theoretical education for uncertainty. The warfighting environment, like almost any other environment, is full of complexity and uncertainty; however, there are basic principles and skills that are consistent across time and space. To be better practitioners of their profession, military members need practical training that makes them masters of the specific competencies within their area of expertise, but they also need a theoretical education that teaches the critical reasoning and creative thinking skills necessary to make decisions in busy, complex and uncertain environments. They need to be technical experts when performing specialized duties and theoretical experts when planning military operations or advising civilian leaders. All educators of public servants must keep the end result in mind by giving their students the tools to make them better practitioners in a multitude of situations and circumstances.

To be effective at making students better practitioners, teaching institutions must continually learn and adapt. The global environment is full of change. International relationships change, technologies change and humans change. In other words, the world in which practitioners operate is always changing. To remain relevant, educators must stay current on these changes and adapt their education and training methods to prepare their students for these different environments. This entails faculty conducting scholarly research that is based in practical application and it also requires that researchers involve current practitioners in their work. By remaining relevant, educators not only make a useful contribution to the scholarly literature, but more importantly, at least in military education, they become better teachers.

And finally, it is important to eliminate the line between the student and the practitioner by encouraging professional development through self study and lifelong learning. Professionals are always both students and practitioners. The military encourages self learning through computer-based training, distance education and published reading lists. Technical training as well as some character development training is available via courseware provided by countless training agencies, and military education opportunities are available through satellite locations and online programs. The Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Joint Forces Staff College and Defense Acquisitions University all have professional reading lists designed to improve critical thinking skills, teach lessons from the past, and prepare individuals for the future.  Military members are encouraged to read, reflect, and discuss relevant issues. Reflection is an important part of the self-learning process, but often neglected due to the phenomenon of being “too busy.”

Author: Scott A. Cook, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies and Political Science, Department of History, Political Science, and Philosophy, Longwood University

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