war on the rocks

More Dissent Needed: Critical Thinking and PME

July 29, 2014

Editor’s note: This is the latest offering from our Charlie Mike blog, a place to engage on issues important to service members, military leaders, veterans, and others.  We want an active and robust dialog, so please read, comment, share, and email us at Charlie.Mike@warontherocks.com!


“Shut up and color.” Anybody who has donned a military uniform knows this sentiment well (and has almost certainly had it directed at them in some form). These are your orders; now salute and execute. It’s a seemingly natural element of military life. If not a facilitator of discipline within the hierarchical organization of command relationships, it is at least an inevitable byproduct of it. But when this attitude is carried over into Professional Military Education (PME), it has serious ramifications. At best, it discourages dissent; at worst, it eliminates it. And dissent is crucial to the development of critical thinking, which is in turn essential for all leaders in the armed services. Indeed, that is why the development of critical thinking is one of the key goals of PME at every level. It is also why the intolerance of dissent is problematic.

Dissent, in this context, means to hold or express an informed opinion that is at variance with an official view or dominant ways of thinking. Without an environment committed to the open exchange of these dissenting views, PME schools cannot expect to produce the levels of critical thinking called for by their congressional masters (see the Ike Skelton Report of 1989 and the House Armed Services Committee report of 2010). Furthermore, a free academic environment is a requirement for accreditation. Thus, one should ask not why there is dissent within PME, but rather, why there is so little. Part of the answer is found in the ”shut up and color” attitude that exists across the armed services. The rest needs some more explanation.

Last year, John R. Schindler and Joan Johnson-Freese wrote a piece on Tom Ricks’ Best Defense blog that addressed the state of academic freedom within PME, and why the issue was important. They also spoke of the need for a tenure system for faculty, in order to promote the type of open exchange essential for the most effective development of critical thinking. There is an ongoing debate about the merits of tenure, but that is outside the scope of this article. That being said, tenure is the norm at the civilian universities upon which many senior civilian and service leaders think PME schools should be modeled. Of course, one might disagree, and argue that PME schools are military in nature and are thus fundamentally different from those in the civilian world.

That’s certainly a common criticism made of those calling for reform within the PME system. It also seemed to be the implication of an op-ed written amid a discussion triggered by an article by General Robert Cone, then commander of TRADOC, about his expectations for PME quality. However, let us be clear, General Cone was not arguing that PME and the civilian system were identical. He did, however, state in the article that, “there is no reason not to demand the equivalent of Harvard on the Missouri at Leavenworth….” He’s right, there is no reason not to. Nevertheless, there are some barriers in the way: one of them is the argument that education in the military is somehow different from that which takes place elsewhere; another is a culture that generally seeks to crush dissent.

The problem with the idea that civilian and military education are fundamentally different essentially ignores the fact that most civilian programs ultimately seek to encourage the development of critical and creative thinking, much as PME schools claim to. Of course there are differences, and a key one is discussed later, but the way the human brain learns does not change because someone has put on a uniform. To argue otherwise would, simply put, be absurd.

The idea that military education is different exists largely because of a common conflation of training with education, both of which are required as part of the development of a service member. Indeed, the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, and in some of the services’ educational institutions training dominates the schedule. All of which indicates that the differences between the two are not fully understood. In explanation — and this is not meant to be comprehensive — training typically involves teaching and practicing a specific task, skill, or drill intended to deal with a scenario that is known, or at least reasonably predictable. For example, when going through a checklist to fire an artillery piece it is probably not helpful to engage in creative thinking or dissent. Education, however, is something different, although the need for repetition is common to both. In education — through which officers more effectively develop their critical thinking — officers acquire a body of knowledge and practice thinking so that they are better prepared to deal with the unexpected. Discussion and argument are both important to this process, and because dissent forces students to think through multiple sides of an argument, it is crucial to the development of critical thinking. Furthermore, effective critical thinking and the informed judgment that comes from it are essential for Mission Command. Thus, the intolerance of dissent can be particularly problematic when preparing military officers for leadership.

The development of critical thinking is an essential element of the good judgment of leaders. This is nothing new. Helmuth von Moltke the Elder used to tell the story of Prince Frederick Charles’ reprimand of a major for making a bad decision. The major justified his actions by claiming he was simply following orders. To this Prince Frederick replied, “his majesty made you a major because he believed you would know when not to follow orders.” The point here is that the major was expected to think critically and use his judgment, as mere training and mindless obedience did not provide an answer. This is also what the Army claims to want from Mission Command. Yet by discouraging dissent, the ability to think critically and exercise judgment is undermined.

Of course, to a certain extent it is understandable that dissent is discouraged. In the armed forces, it makes sense to have everyone working together when it comes to securing an objective in combat, and the building of conformity is important part of securing an objective. Furthermore, dissent is often seen as something that undermines discipline. For example, having an academic like me questioning every tactical decision of an operation that requires instant action, based upon what happened in similar situations in the past, is probably not helpful, and would threaten unit discipline. In some situations, however, especially when important decisions such as whether to commit a nation to war are faced, forcing conformity inhibits the vital element of high-level critical thinking. Thus, there is a paradox. The armed services need critical thinking to accomplish their missions in the most effective fashion, something that requires the toleration of dissent; at the same time, they demand conformity in order to successfully to carry out those missions. How is it possible to reconcile these?

The middle and higher levels of PME provide a solution. These schools are supposed to be a place where dissent is tolerated, possibly even encouraged, in order to develop the critical faculties officers will require as they deal with current and future challenges. It is here that dissent can and should be encouraged, as this is meant to provide a safe environment to develop the critical thinking necessary to face future challenges. On the surface, things look good. For example, according to CGSC’s catalog, successful graduates will be able to lead “teams to solve complex problems throughout the spectrum of conflict.” But, solving complex problems requires rigorous intellectual discourse. How can any of this occur when dissent is discouraged both by the institutions and by individuals within them who conflate criticism, reasonable or not, as disloyalty to the institution, and a threat to discipline?

Of course, there is no policy preventing dissent. Officially, there is academic freedom. However, this brings us back to the ”shut up and color” mentality. This type of attitude is unfortunately not unique. The typical reaction to dissent might be mundane, subtle, and punitive, but it is also dangerously insidious. In order to provide the reader with some idea of what this looks like, it is helpful to include some examples of behavior that I have witnessed — and I have seen and heard this sort of thing from both leaders and colleagues.

A typical reaction to dissent is often comprised of ad hominem attacks against the “enemy within.” Of course, simply referring to the dissenter as the “enemy within” is in of itself an ad hominem attack and it serves to cast dissent as disloyalty to the branch, unit, or institution, etc. Dissent is portrayed, in essence, as non-conformity (or ill-discipline), and conformity is deemed necessary, as explained above. The problem with this is that conformity undermines effective critical thinking, and it encourages groupthink. Clearly, there is a problem here. Another common example of the response to dissent is found in the argument that “they [the dissenter/s] don’t understand because they are not ‘trigger pullers’ like us….” The idea here is that the dissenter was not from the relevant branch or service, they somehow did not have the knowledge (and implicitly, the right) to criticize. I am sure many readers will have seen or heard examples of this. Additionally, dissenters often seem to have their motives questioned: “they’re just a bomb-thrower.” Or, that they are somehow stupid: “they don’t even have a clear end-state so they cannot have thought this through, which they would have if they were serious about it….” Last, there are the implied or vague threats: “if you keep doing this people could lose their jobs….” Of course, the fundamental problem with all of these examples is that not one of them actually addresses the dissenter’s argument. However, these types of comments do serve to undermine the individual and reinforce a mindless conformity devoid of the critical thinking the institutions claim to value. Simply put, a lesson is learned, but not one that is conducive to the development of critical thinking.

What can be done to solve this? First, faculty and students need to know that they can safely voice dissent without fear of repercussion or threats, however vague. Instead, they should expect that what they put forward will be subjected to commonly accepted standards of logic and evidence. That goes both ways, and accepting dissent does not require agreement. Second, to facilitate the above there needs to be a thorough understanding of what academic freedom means.

Why is this so important? A failure to address the lack of true academic freedom undermines the ability of PME to properly educate its officers to think critically. Given our strategic failures in recent wars, this is a pressing problem, and one that directly affects our national security. That is why it is all the more shocking to consider that the late Representative Ike Skelton’s report on PME, twenty-five years ago, stated that in order for PME institutions “to be first-rate, it is imperative that these institutions have an atmosphere that promotes academic freedom and encourages critical, scholarly research.” Changing culture is a difficult thing to do. Let’s get to work.


Dr. Nicholas Murray is an associate professor in the Department of Military History at the U.S. Army Command and Staff College. In 2013 he was awarded the Department of the Army Commander’s Award for Civilian Service, and he was named Educator of the Year for History. He earned his doctorate at the University of Oxford in 2007. He is the author of “The Rocky Road to the Great War”. The views expressed here are his and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.


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