Professional Military Education and the Rigor Problem

War on The Rocks
March 15, 2016

In “Rigor in Joint Professional Military Education,” Nick Murray argues that Congress and the Pentagon have done a poor job defining what it is they want the staff and war colleges to do and, especially, in holding their feet to the fire. This has led, he claims, to “the problems of poor strategic decision-making that have plagued us for the last fifty or more years.”

While there is undoubtedly substantial room for reform in America’s professional military education (PME) system, measuring “rigor” is much more complex than counting buzzwords in school mission statements. Murray’s essay elides the diversity of the PME experience and substantial distinctions between the intermediate- and top-level schools. Further, much of the problems of measurement he points to are just as apparent, if not more so, in graduate education everywhere. Indeed, it’s arguable that PME is more rigorous by Murray’s standards than most civilian master’s programs.

Murray tells us that the staff colleges fail the test of academic rigor because theOfficer Professional Military Education Policy (OPMEP) guidelines that govern them don’t require our graduates to understand strategic thinking at the highest levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy. While remembering, understanding, and applying are indeed lower levels of mental processing than analyzing, evaluating, and creating, as Murray himself acknowledges, the appropriate expectation varies based on a student’s place on the hierarchy. At the staff colleges, we introduce our students to the policy and strategic levels but we’re decidedly not expecting to produce graduates who are ready to “create” at those levels; that’s what the war colleges, which teach more senior officers, are for. Our graduates need familiarity with the higher levels for context, but they’re only expected to graduate with proficiency in “creating” at the high tactical and operational staff levels. We succeed at that.

Further, the OPMEP makes it very clear that the joint PME requirements “will not be delivered as a stand-alone course; they must be integrated across a diverse array of academic topics” by the service and joint schools that conduct it. These schools have vigorous debates among the faculty and administration about what to include and omit from the curriculum.

Despite sharing some broadly defined common mandates via the OPMEP, schools at the same JPME level vary widely in culture, size, mission, and style. Regardless, their curricula are vetted through an internal review process and subject to outside accreditation by both the same regional body that reviews other colleges and universities in the state as well as by the Joint Staff. At my institution, the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, students in all 16 conference groups are assigned the same set of readings and graded on the same set of written assignments assessed using a standardized rubric. While there’s variation across the board in teaching style, emphasis, grading standards and the like, it’s nothing like what exists in civilian colleges. I’ve taught at several of them and was in every instance the sole arbiter of what readings to assign, what content to teach, what types of graded assignments to offer, and how I would grade them. This was even true of the courses I taught as a graduate student.

Indeed, professional pride on the part of the professoriate is the main guarantee of “rigor” in civilian universities. There’s next to zero emphasis on teaching in most graduate programs, where tenure and promotion are almost entirely based on scholarly production, ability to attract grant money, and the like. Professors would revolt against deans or provosts who even presumed to question the rigor of their courses.

PME, by contrast, is more regimented, for both good and ill. But our faculty, both military and civilian, have very powerful professional incentives to hold our students to high standards. After all, they will plan and lead our country’s future wars.

Original article