Professional Military Education Needs More Creativity, Not More History
On an official visit to the People’s Liberation Army’s National University of Defense Technology in Changsha, China, a colleague from the Air Force Research Institute and I were talking with a group of senior Chinese officers. They began to tell us that they devoured the Chinese-language edition of Air and Space Power Journal that we sent them. They said the People’s Liberation Army Air Force could overcome American technology in a conflict, but — where they fell short in their eyes — was in ingenuity, independence, and creativity. This comment was hard to forget and serves to stimulate our interest in a renewed effort to promote creativity within professional military education.
James Lacey’s recent article discussing the new official joint vision and guidance statement for professional military education came shortly after the latest release of the Officer Professional Military Education Policy. The intense and sometimes vitriolic debate over professional military education’s future is certain to heat up once again. The new document calls for officers to, “Demonstrate critical and creative thinking skills, interpersonal skills, and effective written, verbal, and visual communications skills to support the development and implementation of strategies and complex operations.” To what degree this statement signals a dissatisfaction with current professional military education is debatable, but America’s most senior military leaders clearly want officers who can more effectively apply creativity to the challenges facing the United States.
It was not long ago that War on the Rocks published a series of articles debating the criticism to which the professional military education system was subjected by the National Defense Strategy. These articles launched an intense debate within the faculties of the various service schools. Whether the authors were arguing for a greater focus on military-specific training and education or for a more university-like experience, there was a clear desire to ensure the nation’s military officers receive an education that best prepares them for the jobs they would perform upon graduation Disagreement was largely found in how to achieve this undertaking.
In their vision and guidance statement, the Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote,
Our collective aim is the development of strategically minded joint warfighters, who think critically and can creatively apply military power to inform national strategy, conduct globally integrated operations, and fight under conditions of disruptive change.
It is hard to disagree with this aim, even if the need for creative strategic thinkers is not a new problem. The Officer Professional Military Education Policy, in describing desired outcomes, states that graduates should “[d]demonstrate critical and creative thinking skills, interpersonal skills, and effective written, verbal, and visual communications skills to support the development and implementation of strategies and complex operations.”
While we agree with Lacey that a faculty can more effectively use historical case studies, wargaming, and other tools to introduce creativity into the classroom, our view of professional military education’s challenges and their solutions differs from his. In many respects, we draw from past debates and our own experience to formulate solutions. As such, we implore senior leaders in professional military education institutions to work to realize a mindset of creativity in their students. To do so, three structural reforms are needed.
First, it is time to eliminate the current approach to curriculum development whereby each course is developed by a “course director” to be taught by a faculty member — be they a military officer, historian, political scientist, or education leadership specialist. Instead, we suggest a model where each faculty member is given a basic set of course requirements and then allowed to design the course they teach. Additionally, faculty expertise ought to match the course, which is unfortunately not currently the case.
Second, it is time to open the leadership ranks of service schools to career academics, many of whom have spent their careers educating military officers. Creating a more expansive and diverse approach to problem-solving and leadership will lend itself to building the types of officers described in both the Joint Chiefs’ vision and guidance statement and the Officer Professional Military Education Policy.
Third, there is a need for diversification of faculty disciplines, which are aligned with the changing nature of great-power competition. This recommendation goes against both Lacey and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who are pushing for an intensified focus on military history. We do not view that deepened focus as necessary, simply because the professional military education system and curricula are already dominated by military history.
If creativity is best described as the use of the imagination or original ideas, then it is desirable to apply creativity to military challenges for the purpose of achieving strategic, operational, and even tactical objectives. If, as is widely suggested, America’s margin of victory is declining , creativity is certain to aid in the achievement of American objectives. The recognition of this need is clearly stated in both the Joint Chiefs’ vision and guidance statement and the Officer Professional Military Education Policy.
It is worth drawing a distinction between training and education because they are often used synonymously in the military. Training is the act of teaching a person a particular skill or type of behavior. It teaches “muscle memory” and how to use an object in an effort to automate the appropriate response at the correct time. On the other hand, education is the knowledge and development that come from the process of being educated. Thus, the primary difference between training and education is that training teaches a person what do, whereas education teaches a person how to think. It is primarily in professional military education — not training — where we seek to instill a mindset of creativity. In an officer’s military career, time at a service school may be the only opportunity where it is possible to develop this ability for later use on a staff or in the field.
Given the ever-evolving strategic environment in which officers must operate, building a mindset disposed toward creativity provides an advantage to the nation that can see a challenge along with possible solutions in ways that adversaries cannot. By necessity, professional military education must be the primary place where officers are educated to have a mindset of creativity in responding to the world’s greatest challenges. Structuring the service schools to take this path is a must.
In Search of a Framework
Professional military education is, in part, driven by the need to comply with the Process for Accreditation of Joint Education, which serves as the Joint Staff’s curriculum and program guidance for intermediate- and senior-level joint professional military education. The Joint Staff J7 seeks to guarantee that officers receive a uniform education across the service schools at the operational (senior O3–O4) and strategic (O5–O6) levels.
Each service tailors its education to focus on the primary domain(s) in which the service operates. Joint Staff direction ensures that officers from any service attending a given school receives a common core of education. The schools themselves ensure that all officers receive the same material regardless of the professor in the classroom. Moreover, individual faculty members do not necessarily teach within their areas of expertise or design their own courses, with the exception of electives.
The cultural and institutional requirements that maintain the “seminar” system of today’s joint professional military education have as much in common with military training as they do with higher education. They also lead to an overly homogenized education that is a disservice to students and diminishes the ability of the faculty to provide the highest quality education. While the Joint Staff and service school leadership’s intent is to ensure joint professional military education programs provide students with a standard level of education on identified topics, they have actually harmed the quality of education, leaving the system highly bureaucratized and bereft of creativity.
Officer training and education occur at three distinct levels: tactical, operational, and strategic. While this article focuses primarily on intermediate and senior-level joint professional military education, it is impossible to ignore the tactical training that precedes this education.
According to the new Officer Professional Military Education Policy, “Entry level education received at grades O1 through O3 focuses on specialized skills and tactical knowledge in Service-specific constructs with an introduction to Joint matters.” This training focuses on building a clear set of professional skills while acculturating an officer to service and unit culture. Absent the successful mastery of the tactical expertise required to perform an officer’s core duties, advancement and the opportunity to move from a focus on muscle memory to a focus on more complex problem-solving are impossible. For most officers, this training is received during their “basic” course. It is then reinforced upon their arrival at their first unit where on-the-job training and exercises build upon initial training.
At approximately the six-year mark, depending upon the service, an O3 will likely have the opportunity to attend a course that begins to shift the officer from thinking about tactical training to operational education. In the Air Force, Squadron Officer School provides a six-week program that performs this function. In the Army, the Captain’s Course performs a similar function. It is then at the 10- to 13-year mark that officers will either complete their intermediate-level education through a service command and staff college or similar program — in residence or via distance education.
It is the operational-level education that fully introduces officers (senior O3–O4) to joint professional military education and gives them an opportunity to think critically about a range of topics, analyze and synthesize information, and offer solutions to complex problems. The operational level’s focus within a command and staff college prepares students to serve as effective staff officers and field grade leaders. It is at this level that thinking creatively — not just critically — becomes important to the success of an officer.
This level is particularly important for field grade officers because they have a daily impact on junior officers. With command and staff college graduates serving in key staff positions within an Air Force squadron, Army battalion, Marine regiment, onboard ship, or on a headquarters staff, there is a clear need to think creatively about solutions to complex problems. While there are command and staff college faculty members who individually introduce opportunities for officers to think creatively, curricula across the services are fundamentally constrained for several reasons. Apart from some specialized programs at the various service schools, students generally lack clear opportunities to learn, demonstrate, and reinforce creativity.
As the Officer Professional Military Education Policy states, “Education programs received at grades O5 or O6 prepare officers to develop and implement military strategies with an emphasis on Joint operations and some attention to Service-specific contributions.” The focus is on developing strategic thinking.
With many officers attending senior service schools at the 16- to 18-year mark in their careers, it is much harder to instill creativity in them. However, the need to think and operate creatively does not diminish at any point in an officer’s career. Accordingly, the need for creativity is no less important at this last educational opportunity in many officers’ careers than it is in earlier years.
While we acknowledge Tammy Schultz’s admonition that every service school is different, we offer the following recommendations to better structure the professional military education system to develop a creative mindset:
First, standardized curricula — taught to multiple seminars — should be abandoned and the faculty should be given the freedom to design the courses they teach, still meeting Officer Professional Military Education Policy objectives. There are several reasons for which this approach does not occur across the joint professional military education system’s core courses. Culture (comfort with standardization), military bureaucracy (ease of evaluation), and faculty members (regularly teaching outside their areas of expertise) all contribute to the problem.
In practice, an “edutocracy” focused on accreditation that uses under-qualified military instructors drives an overemphasis on standardized curriculum design, simple evaluation metrics, and other tools of the education industry. This educational model does nothing for the quality of education and is harmful to building a mindset of creativity. Though American K-12 education is not among the best in the world, American universities are. Thus, professional military education should mimic the approach of the latter and avoid mimicking that of the former.
Second, the professional military education system requires greater diversity in its leadership. With the vast majority of civilians in leadership positions drawn from the ranks of retired officers, professional military education institutions have too little diversity of experience and perspective in positions that can shape change. Avoiding confirmation bias and groupthink is an important element of any good leadership team. Promoting more career academics into leadership ranks can provide greater diversity of thought and aid senior leadership in understanding the breadth of possibilities.
Many civilian leaders — retired officers — have never worked at a civilian university, which narrows the range of experience from which a service school’s leadership team can draw. When military culture’s lack of creativity is thrown into the mix, this homogenous group of leaders is less prepared to think and act creatively. Thus, incorporating more career academics, even with their own perceived shortcomings, can help service schools think creatively about their own challenges while teaching students to do the same.
Third, leadership across professional military education should make a concerted effort to fill open faculty positions with professors from disciplines like economics, organizational and social psychology, computer science, geography, and other fields that can aid in preparing officers for the complex operational and strategic environment in which they will find themselves. By our count, the majority of PhD civilian faculty members within the command and staff college and war college programs at the various service schools are military historians and, to a lesser degree, political scientists. Thus, curricula reflect what these disciplines know and value rather than the full range of variables that are important to the effective development of officers. Broadening the curriculum requires broadening the faculty.
By diversifying the disciplines that comprise the faculty, we can also improve creativity and expand ways of thinking, problem-solving methodologies, and the breadth of perspectives from which students draw insights. Creativity is rarely a flash of brilliance. It is a purposeful effort to build a mindset that is open to new and innovative ideas.
Building a creative mindset at all levels of professional military education is important if the U.S. military intends to maintain its greatest advantage: its people. As the Joint Chiefs said, “There is more to sustaining a competitive advantage than acquiring hardware; we must gain and sustain an intellectual overmatch as well.”
The recent guidance by the Joint Chiefs of Staff clearly values creativity and seeks to improve its incorporation across the professional military education system. Decentralizing the education curriculum, diversifying leadership, and building a faculty that reflects today’s challenging operational and strategic environment will go a long way in building a more creative graduate.
Creative thinking is needed to stay ahead of our adversaries — a point the Chinese officers to whom we spoke made clear. It is something they understood well. Professional military education plays an important role in preparing American officers for success. Ensuring the United States maintains that advantage should always be our primary goal.
Dr. Adam Lowther is a professor of political science at the School of Advanced Military Studies. He was the director of the School of Advanced Nuclear Deterrence Studies and a research professor at Air University. Lowther served in the U.S. Navy.
Dr. Brooke Mitchell is a George Washington University nuclear security fellow and leads an executive education program at the Louisiana Tech Research Institute that serves Air Force Global Strike Command.
The views expressed are those of the authors alone and do not represent those of the School of Advanced Military Studies, the U.S. Army, the Louisiana Tech Research Institute, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or any other organization or part of the U.S. government.