The Good Idea Fairy Knocks: Seven Things to Understand Before Opining About Professional Military Education


It is tough to publicly critique someone you respect but, if the issue is important enough, sometimes you have to bite the bullet and let fly. In a recent War on the Rocks article, Paula Thornhill provided a set of recommendations she believes would improve professional military education. If anyone is qualified to tackle this issue, it is Thornhill. I first met her when she commanded the Air Force Institute of Technology while I served on the Air Staff as a special advisor to the secretary of the Air Force. Before that she served as dean of the National War College, where I now teach and where, two decades later, her excellent reputation still lingers. These days, we both adjunct teach at Johns Hopkin School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) where I regularly hear from young students who worship the ground she walks on. In short, based on first-hand knowledge, I can attest to the fact that, of the many voices expounding on professional military education, but not (or at least not any longer) directly involved in it, she is one of the most competent and qualified.

She is also wrong. When I say Thornhill is wrong, I do not mean I disagree with all of her ideas. What I mean is that she is empirically wrong and as a result her recommendations would probably do considerable damage to at least one professional military education institution and possibly many more. But I am going to save that for a different article. Here, I’d like to talk about a bigger problem.

The week after Thornhill’s article came out, my email box was inundated with commentary on her article. Within seven days of the article’s publication, I had received well over a hundred emails, almost all from individuals who lacked much experience with professional military education reform but who, nevertheless, purported to diagnose the real problem (which they believed Thornhill’s article missed) and prescribe the genuine cure (which they were sure Thornhill had overlooked). Beyond the simple volume of the traffic on the issue, what struck me above all was the implausible confidence with which so many “good ideas” were delivered. Anyone with experience in the Department of Defense is well aware of the “good idea fairy.” Well, it knocked on my door many times that week.

I am not new to professional military education. I have been involved with education in one way or another for a bit less than 30 years. I have taught at four civilian universities and two professional military education institutions. I have worked for and with the people who utilized the products of professional military education, on many occasions reporting directly to four-star generals or flag officers from across the services. During my career, I have been tasked at various times with the job of helping senior leaders reorganize and reform professional military education institutions. Yet, while the topic of professional military education reform is hardly new to me, I do not come close to holding the level of confidence in my own opinions that I read in virtually every email that followed in the wake of Thornhill’s article.

The problem with confidence in good ideas is, of course, that most are not. And while good ideas can indeed be good, bad ideas tend to be catastrophic. As a military education practitioner, I watch our curriculums jerk back and forth every year or two. As a professional military education reformer, I have helped institute changes that did this to a number of other schools. The speed of curriculum, faculty, leadership, and organizational change in these schools is simply breathtaking compared to civilian schools. Some of these changes marginally improve the education the students receive and the product we send to the combatant commands and Pentagon staffs. More often, however, while full of sound and fury, they signify nothing — if we are lucky. I cannot say that I have ever seen a radical reform that profoundly improved professional military education. I have seen more than one good idea enacted by confident reformers achieve catastrophic results.

With this background in mind, I would like to turn the table around and provide some thoughts for the apparently vast body of confident non-professional military education reformers to consider before opining about this subject. The idea behind this list is not to stop people from coming up with ideas. Rather, I hope to provide a means for potential reformers to help calibrate their confidence levels.

  1. One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Before you provide your diagnosis and cure for professional military education, consider that one size does not fit all. As Tammy Schultz pointed out in an earlier War on the Rocks article, there are many professional military education schools. They have different mandates, different strengths, and different weaknesses. The problem you have diagnosed almost certainly does not apply to all of them. When you propose your good idea, keep in mind that, even if it improves education at the school you are familiar with, it is almost certain to make things worse at other schools. There is no blanket solution.

  1. These Schools Change with Time

When reformers think about these schools, they often picture them as they were when they attended or taught there. But professional military education institutions change rapidly. In my experience, about a third of most schools’ curriculums are replaced each year — as is the faculty. For good or ill, organizational structures, teaching and assessment tools, syllabi, and course content are at the mercy of the leadership in a way that is not the same at civilian schools.

Remember, military leaders like change. Before you publicly diagnose the problem with a professional military education school, you might want to go back and make sure the problem you are thinking about was not fixed since you left. Too often, reform looks like an out-of-sync thermostat with outdated signals piling heat on heat and cold on cold to the detriment of everyone in the room.

  1. Professional Military Education Does More Than You Think

There are a wide variety of consumers for graduates of these institutions. Each would like to see a slightly different skill set. What works for Central Command does not necessarily satisfy Pacific Command’s needs and both have different requirements than service staffs and the Joint Staff. Moreover, every organization’s needs fluctuate depending on who the United States is deterring or at war with and what new technologies are being thrown into the mix. Beyond this, it is commonplace for individual leaders within a single organization to need their grads to have diametrically different skill sets. Satisfying the varied needs of the Department of Defense is not a zero-sum game, but solutions inevitably require tradeoffs. Professional military education is constantly bombarded with requests from customers with conflicting requirements. Are you sure that the set of skills you want professional military education to emphasize are the right ones for actual customers? Have you considered that your preferred weight of effort on, scholarship, PowerPoint skills, writing skills, joint doctrine, cultural sensitivity, military history, regional strategy, geographic awareness, contracting support, cyberspace, presentation skills, social science, joint functions, technology, ethics, leadership, artificial intelligence or what have you, is worth reducing the current weight of effort on something else? Remember, one thing that probably hasn’t changed since you were at a professional military education institution is the tyranny of limited contact hours. Sure, you can replace something, but it is always at the cost of something else.

  1. Rear Echelon Wisdom

 It is a truism that one of the things that makes the U.S. military great is its willingness to decentralize execution. This is something that even the rear echelon folks usually acknowledge. Why is it then, that when it comes to education — something those in the rear often have less experience with than virtually anything else in their careers — reformers suddenly forget about mission command? In professional military education, the front line starts where the chalk meets the black board (or touchscreen white board, as the case may be). If you are not currently serving in a classroom or in a leadership role at a military college or university, the odds are you do not know what the Defense Department’s competing needs are. What makes you so certain that you understand what’s going on well enough to fix it with your thousand-mile good-idea screwdriver?

  1. The Peril and Promise of Mixing Academic and Military Culture

When we move past what needs to be done to how to do it, one of the most important and overlooked dynamics in professional military education involves the nature of academic culture. There may not be any two cultures on the planet more different than military and academic. If an army inculcated a professor-like ethos in its soldiers, the result would be catastrophic (imagine soldiers critiquing and debating every order). If a professional military education institution treated its professors like soldiers, the result would be equally disastrous (picture professors mindlessly reciting doctrine in the classroom). Professional military education is in a perpetual struggle to square this circle. When it goes too far one way, curriculums become flush with idiosyncratic academic irrelevancies. When it goes too far in the other direction, the schools become memorization mills that produce graduates who have not improved their ability to think, adapt, and innovate. When you treat professors like soldiers, the good ones leave and the bad ones stay. This means, of course, that you end up with the worst of both worlds. If your idea involves upsetting the delicate balance between these two cultures, are you certain you understand both well enough to improve the current mix?

  1. Most People Think You Are Wrong

As I read through the post-Thornhill deluge of emails last week, one of the things that stood out is that few people agreed with other writers’ ideas. While everyone seemed very confident in the nostrum they were offering, everyone else seemed to think they were far off the mark. Before you become too attached to your idea, you might want to socialize it. If you find most people do not share your enthusiasm, it might be worth reevaluating the reasons for your confidence.

  1. If It Ain’t Broke…

Finally, it is not at all clear there is a problem. Most “good ideas” begin with an unexamined assumption that American professional military education is broken. When pressed for details, the argument is generally idiosyncratic and empirically wanting. Having sat on countless reform committees over many years, I have almost never heard a strong argument that any school is broken (although some contractors selling products have certainly tried). I have, however, often heard good, empirical arguments about specific characteristics of individual schools that needed improvement. When the insurgency kicked off in Iraq, some schools were slow to adopt lessons on the topic. When cyberspace increased in importance, some schools failed to teach enough about it. Individual schools have rightly been dinged for hiring based on old boy relationships and some professors have rightly been accused of ignoring the mission. But these are almost never the charges leveled against professional military education by distant armchair analysts.

Their complaints are generally something vague, emotional and unverifiable about professional military education being a failure. Really? Are you sure there is really a problem or is this just another instance of “the corps has…”? How are you measuring success? What is your standard of comparison? Are commanders complaining more about grads now than they were 20 years ago? Are other countries doing better? Are civilian graduate schools producing better military officers? Do the majority of our graduates complain about being ill-served or inadequately prepared after they matriculate? As someone who has taught in a wide variety of civilian and military graduate programs over a number of decades and seen innumerable post-graduation student surveys, I will tell you the answer to all of these questions, at least at the schools I am personally familiar with, is no.


Richard B. Andres is Professor of National Security Strategy at the U.S. National War College where he specializes in strategy development with an emphasis on cyber strategy and policy. Across his career he has served as a personal consultant on strategy to a number of senior leaders including the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, the Commander of U.S. Cyber Command, the Secretary of the Air Force, and the Commandant of the Marine Corps. He has led strategy development teams for several combatant commands and the Bush and Obama National Security Staffs. Dr. Andres holds faculty or board memberships at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Georgetown University Security Studies Program, The George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security, the American Enterprise Institute and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Image: A. Moore II