Ignorance and Professional Military Education: The Case for Operational Engagement


There are libraries full of books on the quest for knowledge, but little is known about how things are not learned (or, once learned, not retained). The intellectual historians Robert Proctor and Londa Schiebinger coined the term “agnotology” to refer to the study of ignorance and how it is produced. They make the powerful case that “ignorance is often not merely the absence of knowledge but an outcome of cultural and political struggle.” The perspective that Proctor and Schiebinger provide offers a critical lens through which to evaluate the trajectory of professional military education.

The 2018 National Defense Strategy tags professional military education as stagnating, with a shift in focus toward “the accomplishment of mandatory credit at the expense of lethality and ingenuity.” Today’s military leaders need to be highly adaptive and capable of addressing complex and ambiguous problems. This has sparked a variety of lively debates within War on the Rocks, which has published several recent articles recommending changes to the professional military education system (see articles by Thornhill, Duncan, Jensen, Barno, Perez, and Gudmundsson). Recommendations vary from drastic curriculum changes to the use of “decision-forcing cases” that promote unconstrained thinking and innovation.  These articles raise many valid points, though they fail to address how operational commanders can significantly contribute to the education and training of select officers. Operational commanders, from across the joint force, should leverage the resources and opportunities provided by professional military education institutions and proactively invest their time and energy in effectively grooming the next generation of critical thinkers.

Agnotology: The Study of Ignorance

Agnotology provides a useful framework for better understanding the shortcomings of the military’s approach to professional military education. Under agnotology, there are three sources of ignorance: not having studied a subject, prioritizing the study of certain areas while neglecting others, and hiding knowledge through a deliberate ploy. Historically, the military has largely been guilty of the latter two. While prioritization is critical to the military’s success, it is possible to educate military leaders by utilizing curriculums and study methods that promote innovation while also preparing for well-defined threats.

A significant period in the development of modern professional military education occurred following the Vietnam War with the creation of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, as described by David Fitzgerald in his book, Learning to Forget: US Army Counterinsurgency Doctrine and Practice from Vietnam to Iraq. Gen. William DePuy, the organization’s first commanding general, restructured the professional military education curriculum to “reorient the Army back toward a more predictable, conventional form of war,” viewing abstract topics as detrimental to warfighting. An instructor at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College epitomized the attitude of the time with the statement: “we don’t do dishes, we don’t do windows, and we don’t do insurgencies.” We see professional military education as a manifestation of struggles over values, priorities, and identity within the services. It has historically fallen prey to strategies of “agnotology,” systematically neglecting innovative modes of inquiry when addressing challenging topics. Professional military education is currently at risk of continuing this unproductive pattern.

The Role of the Operational Commander and the Strategic Leader

Establishing effective professional military education programs conducive to creative problem solving requires senior military leader investment. Professional military education for mid-level military professionals is often viewed as a time to study broad perspectives and think about diverse strategies in hopes of fostering innovation. Merely attending courses removed from the operational force, however, is not enough, and operational commanders must proactively invest their own time and perspectives to actively support education.

A group of students in the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Postgraduate School recently conducted a six-month seminar in support of the NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan/Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan commander. The direct link to an operational commander, who was leading troops in combat at the time of the study, not only made the project directly relevant but also contributed to officers’ professional education. The study was an opportunity to examine the Afghan war in an academic environment, at the strategic level, and support an operational command with creative thinking.

The study challenged the team to identify crucial variables for the future utilization of special operations forces in Afghanistan and provide “creative options” to influence these variables. By analyzing variables such as security, governance, economic development, external actors, U.S. policy, and how “we” operate and partner, the team proposed various creative solutions that military commanders, strategists, and planners should consider within four critical pillars that will help achieve a political solution: reconciliation, reintegration, transition, and information operations. Throughout the process, the commander encouraged the team to take a holistic approach to Afghanistan, often beyond its borders, and account for factors potentially outside of his command’s current authorities or sphere of influence. The team purposefully chose an expanded scope to present a comprehensive understanding of the environment, with particular emphasis on conflict resolution, conflict prevention, transition of roles, and narrative and influence operations.

As is often the case when confronting ambiguous and complex problems, the initial problem set was broad, allowing the team to conduct an extended research and discovery phase with few constraints. Most importantly, the commander was not tied to a process or a specific end product, giving the team a wide range of methods to approach the project. Rather than strictly following the Military Decision-Making Process or Joint Operations Planning Process, which are familiar to most military professionals, the team explored several processes to encourage creativity, including Stanford University’s design thinking methodology. The team had monthly engagements with the commander to learn from his experiences, an opportunity typically not afforded to mid-level military officers. These regular interactions not only allowed the team to garner feedback from a strategic leader, but also empowered the team’s discoveries and thinking to change the commander’s perspective. The most important lessons learned for the students related to critical thinking and innovation, gained through interactions with senior military leaders, political figures, and subject matter experts. Approaching a challenging problem through an unstructured process exemplifies the type of thinking currently at risk in professional military education. It is this level of analysis that tomorrow’s military cannot afford to do without.

Role of the Institution

The combination of support from an operational commander and the support of the academic institution allowed for a highly diverse set of perspectives and inputs. Members of the study traveled to Afghanistan for field research and conducted nearly 70 discussions with members of the command. The academic institution provided access to policy-level officials in the U.S. government and the Afghan government. These individuals included Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States, Hamidullah Mohib, now serving as President Ashraf Ghani’s national security advisor, the former U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Laurel Miller, and former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict Michael Lumpkin. Additionally, the team had access to a number of academic perspectives. An abundance of inputs and viewpoints enabled the team to marginalize the factors contributing to agnotology and develop a valuable model for the operational commander and his subordinates. As a culminating event, the team helped prepare the incoming NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan/Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan command team and staff for their 12-month deployment by presenting critical considerations in reconciliation, reintegration, and information operations.


The commander’s personal investment in the study, and the institution’s resources, provided the venue for innovation through critical thinking while mitigating factors that contribute to agnotology. Students entered the graduate program with tactical and operational experiences, though through this study, they were able to elevate their thinking and gain a strategic appreciation for the problem set. The students involved in the project will soon join staffs with graduates of other programs, creating diverse organizations better equipped to tackle complex problems. These mid-level military professionals will eventually transition from commanding tactical organizations to affecting strategic decisions, demonstrating the importance of strategic leaders, academic institutions, and individuals cooperatively working to create innovation and critical thinkers within the military. All professional military education programs from across the Department of Defense have the ability to replicate what students at the Naval Postgraduate School did with the NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan/ Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan, but it will require current operational commanders to invest their time and resources. Most importantly, lessons and perspectives from their interactions with today’s operational commanders will get passed down to future military professionals, not necessarily through books and articles, but through experiences.


Majs. Michael Oliveira, Josh Sider, and Thang Tran are Army special operations officers who are graduate students in the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. All officers are graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, with multiple combat tours in Afghanistan. Leo Blanken is an associate professor in the Defense Analysis Department of the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Rational Empires: Institutional Incentives and Imperial Expansion (University of Chicago Press, 2012) and co-editor of Assessing War: The Challenge of Measuring Success and Failure (Georgetown University Press, 2015). The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense of the U.S. government.

Image: Justin Connaher