Approaching a Fork in the Road: Professional Education and Military Learning


What is the purpose of military education, and how should it be delivered? These questions are being posed with increasing urgency on both sides of the Atlantic. The incessant pace of technological change, a renewal of serious great power competition, and persistent political pressure to decrease military budgets have all contributed to a sense that intellectual agility and innovation are crucial to ensuring that Western armed forces remain competitive in the mid-21st century. How to foster independent and original thought is thus an issue of critical importance, and questions are rightly being asked about whether the existing system of military education, centered around the war and staff colleges, is suitable for the task which confronts it.

In a recent article for War on the Rocks, Paula Thornhill, the former faculty dean of the U.S. National War College, made the case that the current U.S. system of professional military education is not fit for purpose. Building on criticisms made in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which labeled the defense educational establishment as “stagnant,” she charged that the current system fails to produce the sort of staff officers required to make effective strategic and command decisions. Central to her critique was a second charge levelled in the National Defense Strategy: namely that the pursuit of academic accreditations by professional military education institutions has become detrimental to those establishments bottom line of preparing officers for senior staff and command roles. In her view, the interaction between military and academic accreditation systems at staff colleges tend to produce “generic, unfocused strategic studies curricula that fail to provide the specific skills the military needs.” The academic assessments required for these courses are ill-suited to preparing students to produce the shorter, more succinct appreciations required in staff work. Moreover, the academically minded civilian faculty at professional military education institutions may represent “the greatest challenge” to addressing these issues, owing to their attachment to “academic” forms of assessment which are of little relevance to students’ future employment.

Thornhill’s comments situate her in a long line of officers who have been critical of the curricula taught at staff colleges, and the methods used to deliver them. Recollecting his time at the British Army’s staff college at Camberley in the 1890s, Field Marshal Sir William Robertson — who went on to serve as professional head of the British Army between 1915 and 1918 — recalled in his memoirs how, upon his arrival at the college, he found the then-commandant in the midst of overhauling the existing syllabus. The commandant was doing so because, until that point,

too much importance seems to have been attached to the mere accumulation of knowledge and to preparation for written examinations, and the capacity of the students on leaving the college was estimated mainly by the numbers of marks gained in these examinations.

In Robertson’s view, “everyone knows that the best performer on paper is not always — one might say is not usually — the most proficient in the field” and he approved of the new system, which was based upon “the study of concrete questions regarding organization and administration, and in solving strategical and tactical problems both in quarters and out of doors.”

In other words, the tension that Thornhill has identified between the military requirements of staff college — familiarization with doctrine, campaign planning concepts and processes, other services procedures and practices, etcetera — and the more ephemeral “educational” aims of such institutions has a long pedigree. That military officers require ongoing development of their professional skills, of which staff work plays an absolutely crucial part, is obvious. The most concentrated periods of such training occur at staff colleges, where cohorts of students benefit from prolonged training and education in these key skills. However, if officers are to arrive in senior positions prepared to adapt and to thrive under conditions of change and uncertainty, they also require an education. In some respects, this reality is well appreciated by modern Western militaries, and many of their allies and partners. Over the past several decades, staff colleges have approximated elements of their curricula and practice to those of civilian higher education establishments, with the aim of providing the sort of educational experience necessary to develop future leaders. In others ways however, as Thornhill’s article reveals, the value Western armed forces attach to education appears to be in decline.

In this regard, Thornhill’s proposals are worthy of detailed examination because they reflect broader trends present within professional military education on both sides of the Atlantic. Essentially, she argues that staff colleges should prioritize “core business” — i.e. the production of staff officers properly equipped for their subsequent postings. If this comes at the expense of accreditation from the higher education sector, so be it. Such recognition is not, after all, the aim of staff college, and it might be possible to have a curriculum oriented more fully toward staff work accredited anyway, without the imposition of unsatisfactory and ill-focused strategic studies programs in order to achieve it. Moves of this nature are already afoot in the U.K. armed forces, where the Army’s initial officer training program at Sandhurst will now offer degrees to recruits for completing their military training, and where a new Army Education Pathway will accredit solely military activity up to Master’s degree level.

Aspects of this argument are credible and legitimate. Military staff work at the intermediate or senior officer level is not simply a matter of training, and its educational elements might well satisfy some of the criteria for accreditation within the higher education sector. Student assessments at staff college also ought to be aligned with the requirements of future employment borne firmly in mind — a fact widely recognized in the tertiary education sector itself. Finally, that staff colleges play an important function in ongoing development of military officers, and that their graduates ought to be properly equipped for subsequent postings, is undeniable. If the current system does not produce such an outcome — something which can only be judged by military professionals themselves — then it is undoubtedly in need of reform.

Yet the full implications of Thornhill’s argument, and the broader trends of which it is partially illustrative, contain within them significant dangers. Her proposals appear to advocate a reduction in the proportion of civilian-led educational provision within staff colleges, and a shift in the curriculum toward more “military” topics with direct relevance to officer’s future employment. Implicit in this recommendation is a scepticism about the role of “education” in equipping officers for their future careers, and the role of “civilian” academics in providing that education.

Education, Training, and the Military

It is a mantra repeated so often as to be almost meaningless that modern militaries face an increasingly complex security environment. New challenges posed by technologies such as artificial intelligence contain the potential to change the character of war in unpredictable ways, shifts in demography and climate offer the potential to stoke new conflicts, terrorists can use advanced communications to launch attacks with little warning, and Russia and China appear resolved to challenge Western notions of global order. Whether one accepts that these challenges are unprecedented in their scope or not, it seems uncontroversial to state that military officers need to be equipped to deal with uncertainty — particularly as they ascend the career ladder to positions of strategic decision-making responsibility. There is no better way of inculcating and fostering this crucial capacity than through the arts, humanities, and social sciences — in other words, through a liberal education. This much can be seen from the wealth of studies showing the success liberal arts students enjoy in the worlds of finance, business, technology, and politics.

It would therefore appear to be entirely the wrong time to be purging the “college” from the war and staff colleges, and rather a good opportunity to be doing the opposite. As Jennifer Mittelstadt has argued, if war colleges are to achieve their educational aims, they ought to take further steps toward emulating higher educational institutions, not try to shy away from their practices. Doing so would satisfy Thornhill’s legitimate critique of the “generic, unfocused strategic studies curricula” which prevail at some institutions by empowering civilian academics to teach upon a wider diversity of challenging topics. If the educational aim of staff college is to foster critical thought, judgement, communication, analysis, and research, then those qualities can be pursued whilst studying much more than Thucydides, Clausewitz, and Colin Gray, or by approaching those topics in new and challenging ways.

It might very well be that courses on business, management, or artificial intelligence form part of such a forward-thinking curriculum — such topics (which are often cited as key to modern militaries) do, after all, offer important skills. If they are included, however, it is vital that their addition does not result from the same confusion of training and educational aim that has led to overly generic, uninspiring curricula in the past: If military organizations judge that knowledge of certain topics is essential to an officer’s career development, then that information should be prioritized in the military training/educational provision of staff courses. It should not become a mandatory element of military educational programs, whose aim is to develop key transferrable skills.

This is not to argue that the job-specific learning conducted at staff college is not “education” and therefore of no benefit to cultivating such skills. Rather, it is to highlight a simple reality: Teaching a conceptually narrow curriculum intended to impart large quantities of information in a compressed timeframe — which often occurs at staff colleges — does not offer the same educational benefits as “civilian” approaches to higher education. Similarly, having staff training delivered by serving or retired officers accredited by a higher education institution does not make the content of that training any more beneficial in an educational sense, or come close to replicating the benefits to be gained from dedicated time spent studying at an academic establishment.

To achieve both training and educational aims for officers (and other ranks, who are often ill-served with educational opportunities), a greater investment of time and of money are required. Constraints on both of these precious commodities are at the root of many current issues within military education: NATO countries cut their professional military education budgets by an average of 30 percent between 2008 and 2013, and the purse strings have also tightened on U.S. professional military education institutions in recent years — notably with cuts to the National Defense University in 2012.

As a result, staff colleges are obliged to blend training and educational aims within the same courses, combining assignments on military topics with elements of academic study. This compromise is just that — a compromise. New ways of delivering education such as online learning offers some additional flexibility to how armed forces can educate their people. However, they do not obviate the fundamental requirement of time. Putting a course online is meaningless if officers do not have time taken out of their work schedules elsewhere to fulfill it in a meaningful fashion.

Yet in the broad picture of military spending, education is incredibly cheap — especially when compared to ambitious equipment purchasing plans such as the £178 billion the United Kingdom intends to invest in this area before 2026 (bearing in mind that the total annual operating cost of a university of 30,000 students is something in the range of £700 million). Even bringing resourcing into the equation, it is difficult to find convincing arguments against providing officers and other ranks with greater educational opportunities than exist at present.

Civilians, Staff College, and Military Education

This begs the further question of how to go about providing these additional educational opportunities. Amongst Thornhill’s recommendations was to “rebalance faculties to include high-performing field grade officers … as well as some retired principals to teach in either a full-time or adjunct capacity.” In other words, she believes that reducing the proportion of civilian faculty would improve staff college’s ability to deliver on its bottom line: training staff officers.

This proposal is the polar opposite of arguments advanced by a long and distinguished list of civilian academics based at U.S. staff colleges, most notable among them Joan Johnson-Freese, and recently Jennifer Mittelstadt. Both of these scholars, along with many others, have argued that military education would benefit from greater civilian involvement, and provided convincing evidence of ways in which such “civilianization” could benefit educational outcomes. In this regard, it is worth noting the distinction between the U.S. and U.K. systems. In the former, it is common for 50 percent of “academic” faculty (distinct from military teaching staff) to be retired officers. In the latter, the proportion is under 5 percent. Therefore, Thornhill can hardly hold “civilians” responsible for what she perceives as poor academic practice at U.S. staff colleges, when a majority of the faculty at these institutions are not career academics, and are less likely to be exposed to alternative approaches to learning.

More broadly, the recommendation to reduce civilian involvement at staff college begs serious questions about the extent to which modern militaries are prepared to pay genuine attention to issues such as critical challenge, original thought, diversity and inclusion, and innovation. Research on cognitive diversity stresses the positive correlation between the presence of a diverse range of viewpoints and arguments and effective strategic decision-making. Why would modern militaries not want to foster such a diversity of opinion and argument by excluding the civilian world from its education? And why does it make sense to involve professional civilian educators in a fashion which limits their capacity to shape the curriculum? When it comes to educational objectives, all this does is to limit the space for genuinely critical thought and argument — commodities which senior leaders consistently espouse the importance of. By opening up the curriculum to new topics and approaches — whether the history of art, subaltern studies, classics, or something else — we stand to gain far, far more than it is possible for us to lose.

Moving Forward

Military education is a complex field subject to multiple pressures and competing agendas. One-size-fits-all recommendations are thus unlikely to satisfy anyone. However, a number of points are worth stressing. At a time when armed forces insist that uncertainty is a dominating feature of future operations, education — in the truest sense of the word — has never been more important for modern militaries than it is today. As such, debate about how best to deliver that education is healthy and beneficial, and all of those involved in professional military education ought to be proactively seeking opportunities for improvement and, if necessary, change.

Within this debate, voices in uniform play a vital role, particularly when it comes to defining the specific skills necessary for staff and command appointments. Yet civilians also play a crucial part, offering professional educational expertise, alternative viewpoints, and high-quality teaching and research. One of the ways in which professional military education could change in future — and I would argue should consider doing so — is by empowering civilian educators to play a larger role, and one less constrained by a rigid curriculum.

Proposals such as Thornhill’s augmented program of staff training might be necessary to produce the staff officers of tomorrow, but so is additional provision in high quality tertiary education. This cannot be delivered by serving or retried officers, or at least not without those individuals undertaking prolonged re-training outside the confines of military institutions. A PhD does not make one a good teacher, even if it is earned after a distinguished military career. Further, a career within a hierarchical institution with a strong corporate identity and method of operation encourages one to think in particular ways. Some former military officers can become great scholars, excellent teachers, and think in radically different ways to their colleagues. Indeed, many already have — John Hattendorf, Craig Symonds, and James Goldrick to name but a few. But such a pool of people is small, and certainly smaller than the number of military veterans that fill so many teaching slots at U.S. professional military education institutions. The chances of getting in high quality educators who can offer constructive but critical new viewpoints is thus vastly increased by looking to the civilian sector, and by constituting faculties overwhelmingly from people who have dedicated their careers to teaching and research.

Neither do online degree programs — often held up as a flexible means of offering education to serving personnel — offer the prospect of providing such education at a discount. Such courses require high-quality professional expertise to design and run — perhaps more so than their residential equivalents, owing to the pedagogical challenges which stem from never seeing your students in person. Moreover, moving education online does not obviate the necessity of giving students time to complete their studies: such programs cannot realize their full worth if undertaken in addition to a full-time job. Cutting edge educational expertise from the higher education sector is thus vital to providing effective online learning, and maximizing the impact of such interventions still requires large investments of time for students to undertake their studies in.

If modern militaries do value the educational outcomes their leaders espouse, what is necessary is greater investment in officers’ development in a holistic sense, and greater trust that their students will engage with and benefit from education outside of a purely military curriculum. Opportunities for such education could be provided at staff colleges, other higher education establishments, through online learning, or a combination of the above.

More important than how this education is delivered is the recognition of the fact that it is indispensable for the modern military professional, and that times of uncertainty and financial austerity only increase the benefits of investing in a cadre of forward-thinking, well-rounded officers. Cutting staff college provision, or reducing civilian involvement at staff college, is directly detrimental to this aim.


David G. Morgan-Owen is an historian and lecturer in Defence Studies at King’s College London, where he works at the UK Joint Services Command and Staff College. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the views of the Defence Studies Department, or of King’s College London.

Image: U.S. Army Photo by Dan Neal

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