The Road Less Traveled: Both Sides Are Right About Professional Military Education


In my Marine Corps War College office in Quantico, a two-foot pile of articles lamenting or defending the state of professional military education gathers dust on a bookshelf while I’m on my sabbatical. Three recent War on the Rocks articles make some good points. I would put one of these, written by Paula Thornhill, in the “professional military education sucks” (and should be totally rethought or gotten rid of) pile. The other two belong on the “professional military education is awesome” (but might need some work) stack. These articles — one penned by enterprising marines Austin Duncan and Adam Yang, and the other written by David Morgan-Owen — also hold some truth. I’ve added to these stacks over the years, intending to produce a thoughtful meta-analysis of both sides that reaches startling conclusions and revolutionizes professional military education.

This is, of course, an important debate, but one often laden with hubris. After a decade teaching at the Marine Corps War College, the debate’s predictability is an ironic microcosm of the very contours of the argument itself. In this fight, it seems best to pick a side and be confident in one’s righteousness rather than get run over in the middle.

Articles about professional military education tend to stereotype and homogenize across schoolhouses and services. Few individuals have worked at multiple institutions and, when writing about the topic, many generalize across institutions in a way that does not hold true. All top-level schools must teach certain strategic and joint warfighting principles, but the Marine Corps War College is very different from the Army War College. And it should be, with each having a Marine Corps or Army flavor along with a good dose of jointness. Different approaches should make for more diversity of thought down the road in the Tank, also something we want. The Marine Corps War College’s small size enables the college to fit into the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s conference room, which we yearly do. The Army War College’s size means that it can host a huge conference every year. And when one adds in the various enlisted and non-commissioned officer school houses, or lower levels of officer education, more variance is added. In short, the schools should be different and teach to different levels (strategic, operational, tactical) because the student body, and therefore learning objectives, are different. Otherwise, why have separate schoolhouses at all?

Instead of selecting one side of the professional military education fight or the other, professors should be dodging cars in the middle of the road for the good of their students and the nation. Any sort of education includes four primary components: the curricula, the student, the professor, and the assessments. I am going to largely skip over the first, curricula, for one primary reason: The curricula by and large mirror the field’s standards and best practices, to include two of the top three civilian strategic studies MA programs for practitioners (the Security Studies Program at Georgetown and Strategic Studies program at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University), at least at the professional military education top level schools, the war colleges. That does not mean that the curricula are perfect, and I changed how I taught many requirements, but that if someone has an issue, they need to take on the entire field — not just professional military education.

The second component, the students, if dealt with at all in writings about professional military education, are dubbed as subpar, or as variables over which the schools have little, if any, control (or both). My first few years, I lamented to the civilian and military professors with whom I worked, and they to me, about the lack of critical thinking and creativity in our students, which other War on the Rocks articles have addressed. I wrongly assumed that the students were bringing their risk aversion from the battlefield into the classroom, which stifled their creativity. I was wrong.

The professors perhaps have the most assertions and stereotypes in this fight, to which I also fall prey. Just looking at the stock photo selected for Morgan-Owen’s article, you have a white military man speaking to a largely white, mostly male audience. When my professional military education article stack was in its infancy, maybe only six-inches thick, I thought this “white, male, retired colonel, now with a Ph.D. who thinks he can teach” demographic was one of the dragons that I needed to slay. Bob Mahoney, then the Marine Corps War College’s dean, reminded me that one of my favorite Marine Corps University professors was just that – a white, male, retired colonel, new Ph.D. (from Princeton, which I wasn’t sure was a point for or against him): Dr. Edward O’Dowd. Using a cookie cutter, identity-based approach to faculty hiring, I realized, would mean no Dr. O’Dowd, which would mean the loss of a great professor due to my identity-biased criteria. So, luckily I never went after that windmill.

The stereotypes on all sides have to stop. A Ph.D. does not mean one can teach, but neither does being a great military leader mean one is suddenly a great Socratic professor. Some individuals on both sides think people on the other are incapable of mastering both crafts (e.g., brilliant, Socratic military professors or civilian experts in joint warfare). This typecasting mistake is made by both Thornhill and Morgan-Owen — civilians only know “civilian” topics like critical thinking, whereas military officers or enlisted professionals only know military matters. Rather than entrench into military and civilian camps in our schools, we should cross-pollinate as much as possible. I mean this differently than most: A civilian may help a colonel master a particular aspect of joint warfare, or a military instructor could design a breakthrough classroom methodology his/her civilian colleagues can use.

The relentless drumbeat about the military’s lack of critical, creative, strategic leaders is not new, and is rearticulated in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which claims professional military education “has stagnated, focused more on the accomplishment of mandatory credit at the expense of lethality and ingenuity.” Although I have tremendous respect for Defense Secretary James Mattis, this is a misdiagnosis of the problem. Worse, some of the cures identified are more properly suited for training vice education. For instance, although professional military education can certainly “emphasize independence of action in warfighting concepts to lessen the impact of degraded/lost communications in combat,” I sleep better at night knowing that the Navy has brought back celestial navigation training lest our GPS be jammed or otherwise compromised. As it so happens, we do debate the strategic implications for Chinese infiltration of our computer systems, artificial intelligence boundaries and ethics, and other topics. Declaring professional military education’s stagnation seems to be premature at best, and simply demoralizing and incorrect at worst.

After years of complaining to my colleagues about a lack of student creativity, or “ingenuity” per the National Defense Strategy, and assuming it came from risk aversion in the field being transferred into the classroom, I finally had an epiphany: What if the problem was not the students, but me, the professor? What if I was being risk adverse, so almost by necessity, students mirrored that behavior? Every new class that arrived, we wanted critical, creative leaders to emerge, yet we made students read the same strategies, doctrine, and non-fiction books with the same two-page memo assigned. Wash, rinse, repeat. Every damn year. All the while we kept waiting for these super soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, or members of the Coast Guard to suddenly come up with the new concept to replace the “three block war” when giving them no intellectual breathing room to do so.

To recap: The curricula, students, professors, and assessments had not really changed. Yet somehow, the outcome — more strategic, creative students — was supposed to alter (or had suddenly got worse, as the National Defense Strategy claimed).

In all fairness, in some ways, the “professors” have varied, to include hiring me. I have been told by many in the Marine Corps that I am the students’ walking, talking, breathing cognitive dissonance. I am a civilian, a woman, a Democrat (although I do my utmost to leave the partisan slant at the classroom door and was a rabid independent until the Iraq War), and I came out of the closet my second year at Marine Corps War College in The Washington Post. I was welcomed with death threats, and my windshield was broken on Quantico’s base the day “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed later that year. But more needed to change, and those rabid cats being out of the bag did not help me reached my learning objectives with our students. If anything, being intellectual foil was more exhausting than anything else.

For my part, I decided to alter the two things over which I had the most control: the curricula and the assessments. Another Marine Corps War College professor, James Lacey, changed his teaching methodology to include more wargames, as he detailed in War on the Rocks. If I wanted my students to take risk, I had to do so as well. I introduced more fiction into the general curriculum. My “elective” class reads solely fiction. Since one of the biggest concepts I try to teach is that asking the right question is often more important than the answer, after a couple of classes, students figure out their own strategic-level question as well as how they will answer it — using art, words, music, or any other modal. Perhaps the biggest risk I take is handing over the classroom to the students.

Given the higher level of education about which I am writing, one of my most sacred goals is to work myself out of a job, at least for that year’s students. By the time students graduate, they can be confident not only in their subject matter expertise, but in their capacity for continued growth in critical and creative thinking, strategic-level warfare, and more, without me or any other professor. They have learned to be their own instructors.

There are several ways civilian or military schools can aid professors, and ultimately students, towards learning objectives aimed at critical and creative thinking. The first is to allow professors to fail, even spectacularly, as they alter the curriculum and their assessments. This means the tyranny of classroom surveys with no supplemental qualitative methodology (e.g., qualified instructors sitting in for the entirety of a class) should end. Otherwise, like a presidential candidate in a general election, a professor will deliver the vanilla option — the tried and true, if only partially effective, teaching methodology and assessment. In professional military education, the student is not the customer — the U.S. government is. That means administrators should provide top cover for faculty so long as what the faculty is doing is ethical and is an effort to reach the program’s outcomes. It is the height of hypocrisy to tell our students to be creative when not allowing the faculty the same freedom, and creativity necessarily means taking risk.

Second, when I first came to the Marine Corps War College, about 20 percent of my time went to various administrative requirements, be they from Marine Corp University or the J-7 who manages education for the joint force. Today, that amount has climbed to about 60 percent. More individuals are needed in the J-7 who understand the difference between training, for which check-the-block lists and metrics exist and can be executed, and education, which often has longer time horizons and for which efforts to mirror training measurement precision are folly. Most education metrics give the illusion of certainty, the very likes of which meaningful education rejects, at least in the short term. Agreed, not all of this time goes towards J-7 requirements, and we do some of it to ourselves. This ratio needs to be turned back towards teaching.

Third, we need to change how we write and talk about “professional military education.” Although I will continue to watch my article stack grow, the absolutes and forced homogenization are killing me, and are unhelpful to students and educators alike. Like everywhere else, professional military education has good and bad traits, good and bad professors, and good and bad classes. What works at a smaller institution like the Marine Corps War College may not work at the National Defense University scale, but the idea might be effective in smaller doses or for certain segments of a professional military education population. Instead of being Chicken Littles where professional military education is falling out of the sky or ostriches where everything with professional military education is great, we should strive for the kind of nuance we demand from our students when confronting today’s and tomorrow’s wicked problems. Or even better, refuse to write a straight forward narrative, but one that contains best (and worst) practices. As Walt Whitman wrote, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”


Tammy S. Schultz is professor of Strategic Studies and the Director of National Security at the Marine Corps War College, and also served at the Army War College’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute from 2005-2007. The views expressed in this article are her own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Defense, U.S. Marine Corps, or Marine Corps University.

Image: U.S. Air Force/Jamie Pitcher