A Fourth Way in Professional Military Education

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Over the course of the summer of 2018, War on the Rocks published five articles on professional military education that each described a distinct vision of what American schools for field grade officers ought to be. One of these, by David Morgan-Owen, argued for a larger role for civilian academics one that, among other things, gave them greater freedom in the choice of subjects and methods. Two of the articles, by Paula Thornhill and Celestino Perez, Jr. respectively, proposed reforms that would push institutions of professional military education in a different direction, replacing much academic work with additional opportunities to practice particular military skills, although they have different views of what these skills should be. The two remaining articles, one by Tammy S. Schultz and another by Richard Andres, championed approaches that, while different from each other, would employ mixtures of academic and military elements similar to those currently seen in American war colleges.

In this article, I offer an alternative to the three paths laid out over the summer. Neither a compromise between pure pragmatism and unalloyed academic abstraction, nor a combination of the two approaches, this fourth way might be called “Socratic application,” “the Xenophon option,” or “reflective professional practice.” Whatever we end up calling it, it promises to produce officers who are immediately capable of producing first-class staff work and, at the same time, fully prepared for the cognitive challenges of a world rich in rapid, repeated, and radical revolutions.



The inspiration for this fourth way in professional military education comes from the works of Xenophon of Athens (who died in 354 BC), Count William of Schaumburg-Lippe (1724-1777), James Carson Breckinridge (1877-1942), and Wallace Brett Donham (1877-1953). Though they lived in different times and dwelt in different places, all four of these men promoted the use of humble, humane, holistic educational methods to prepare people to engage the many practical problems that would necessarily arise in the course of an inherently unknowable future.

A student of Socrates, Xenophon applied the great philosopher’s technique of open-minded, open-ended inquiry to the necessarily peculiar problems of a variety of practical endeavors, ranging from the management of a household and the reform of the finances of the Athenian Republic to the handling of hunting hounds and the leading of cavalry units. Twenty-one centuries later, Count William employed a similar combination of humane spirit and rigorous application to the education of the artillery and engineer officers of the tiny army of the Sovereign County of Schaumburg-Lippe. Though the subjects studied were closely tied to a highly specific strategic scheme for the defense of William’s postage-stamp state, the methods used were, like those of Xenophon, inherently exploratory. That is, rather than providing them with either answers or explanations, Count William asked his students to conduct their own experiments, prove their own propositions, draw their own maps, and make their own translations.

James Carson Breckinridge, who served as commandant of the Marine Corps Schools for a total of four-and-a half years, and Wallace Brett Donham, long-time dean of the Harvard Business School, were born in the same year.  Working in very different institutions, each attempted a pair of parallel reforms, each of which involved both a change of subject matter and innovative teaching methods. Breckinridge succeeded in turning the two schools for Marine officers at Quantico, which had been pale imitations of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, into places where marines studied the things that they expected to be called upon to do in the foreseeable future: fighting “small wars,” defending advanced naval bases, and landing substantial forces on hostile shores. At the same time, he failed to implement his vision of courses in which classes served as “open forums for discussion” and opportunities for the “dissection of special episodes.” Donham managed to achieve both goals. Thus, in addition to replacing the study of specific industries (such as the making of steel or the production of paper) with cross-cutting inquiries into functions common to all enterprises (such as finance and marketing), he succeeded in convincing the professors at the Harvard Business School to assemble their courses from “cases,” exercises which placed students in the role of particular people who had faced particular problems at particular points in time.

Breckinridge understood that setting student problems in speculative scenarios created a bias towards conventional solutions. Nonetheless, he does not seem to have contemplated the replacement of hypothetical problems with “historical map problems” of the type that some instructors at the U.S. Army Infantry School had already begun to use. The Infantry School Mailing List published its first historical map problem, “Operations of a British Infantry Battalion in the Retreat from Mons,” in the issue dated June, 1934. By way of contrast, the cases used at the Harvard Business School were, from the very start, accounts of actual problems faced by real people in the real world. Among other things, this allowed students to compare the classroom courses of action they devised with the solutions adopted by flesh-and-blood protagonists and, better yet, see the second- and third-order effects of those decisions.

Between 2007 and 2017, I took part in an initiative in which instructors at the Marine Corps University employed “cases” of the type introduced by Donham to teach a variety of military subjects. Known as the “Case Method Project,” this initiative resulted in several hundred classes in which students engaged distinct dilemmas drawn from military history. In some instances, these “decision-forcing cases” were organized into courses. In others, they were stand-alone events. On all occasions, the definitive feature of each exercise consisted of a Socratic conversation in which the instructor used open-ended questions to challenge students to devise, describe, and defend specific solutions to the problem (or problems) at hand. This done, the instructor provided a description of the course of action implemented by the protagonist of the case. Also known as “the reveal” and “the rest of the story,” this “historical solution” provided students with a benchmark against which they could compare their own solutions. When, moreover, an individual case formed part of a course, the historical solution set the stage for the next decision-forcing exercise in the series.

The decision-forcing cases differed from the military exercises employed at Quantico in three important ways.  First of all, the scenarios were works of history, good-faith attempts to replicate problems faced by real people in the real world at some point in the past.  Secondly, while encouraged to exchange ideas with their classmates, each student was asked to present his own solution.   Thirdly, students were free to employ any mode of analysis that they deemed appropriate.  In other words, the decision-forcing cases were entirely free of templates, processes, and procedures.

The experience of the Case Method Project convinced me of the possibility of an approach to professional military education that provides the benefits of both the pragmatic program promoted by Thornhill and the academic approach championed by Morgan-Owen. That is to say, decision-forcing cases require that students approach problems in a way that is, at once, critical and creative, hard-nosed and humane, and rooted in reality while open to innovation. In doing this, it prepares them for the definitive task of the profession of arms: the design of custom-tailored solutions to problems that necessarily involve people and machines, politics and violence, the eternal verities of war, and the transient peculiarities of specific situations.

Creating a curriculum composed of decision-forcing cases is a straightforward task. Because each problem is set in a particular time and place, sequences of cases often suggest themselves. The resulting combinations, moreover, give students opportunities to learn about the evolution of technology, methods, and ideas. Making the transition to a very different way of teaching, however, will not be so easy. In transforming themselves into instigators of unbounded engagement, instructors will have to transcend many familiar compartments, whether military or academic, or intellectual or institutional. In focusing upon the dilemmas faced by real people in real life, they will need to set aside the abstractions, generalizations, and formulas that loomed so large in their own experience of formal education. In replacing exposition with genuinely open-ended questions, they will need to do something that as difficult as it is rewarding. That is, if they wish to give their students the full benefit of decision-forcing cases, they will have to follow the example of Benjamin Franklin, who, after reading Xenophon’s biography of Socrates, abandoned “positive argumentation, and put on the humble inquirer.”



Between 2007 and 2017, Bruce I. Gudmundsson held the Case Method Chair at the Marine Corps University. He is currently working on a history of the use of decision games in military education. The first fruit of this project, “The Education of the Enlightened Soldier,” was published in the Marine Corps University Journal in the spring of 2018. At present, Gudmundsson is teaching a course, called Cases from Clausewitz, for the Washington, DC chapter of the Yale Alumni College.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps (Photo by Staff Sgt. Dengrier M. Baez)