AOL Defense has an article about the military war colleges. The war colleges are sometimes interchangeably described by as SDE (senior developmental education) or more commonly, senior-level PME (professional military education). The clear focus with the AOL Defense article is on the faculty side and while there’s plenty to say in that regard, the bigger issues in my mind are on the institutional (service or Joint Staff) and student side. Are all the SDE schools committed to academic freedom, strong curriculum, and continued faculty development? Of course; find one that isn’t.
Being picked for and attending SDE is a hard mandatory for promotion to flag or general officer and a near-guarantee of promotion to O-6. But what is SDE? While the JCS has a whole publication on it, it is largely a career enhancing, service and JCS endorsed event driven to comply with the Goldwater-Nichols Act. Why does an officer need SDE? Because, as Emil Faber tells us, knowledge is good; who (outside of Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters) can argue we don’t need no education? More realistically—but sadly—all the services need SDE schools because all the other services have it, hardly a national security value-adding idea.
Does in-residence SDE completion make for a better officer? The answer ranges from probably to almost certainly. But the issue isn’t just about building a better officer; the issue is how much better, how do we know, and is it worth the investment? While there are wonderful SDE opportunities to listen, discuss, reflect, ponder, swap stories, and network (the most powerful, interesting, and useful aspect of SDE) is it worth the $400K or so ‘investment’ and the lost work that accompanies this investment? It’s impossible to say with any certainty because there’s no attempt to meaningfully capture the national security value-added of the PME experience writ large (besides the fact it creates easily measure discriminators for promotion boards).
Officers are picked for SDE attendance based on their record of achievement and not on their academic proclivity. This is as it should be given the overarching task to deter/fight/win the nation’s wars, but the bigger point is that when you take a SDE student, a military member who is normally around the 20-year point of service, their goals are likely to be (in this order) successful completion, career enhancement, and learning. While these goals often overlap at multiple points, shouldn’t the most significant SDE issue be in addressing the educational activities needed to most add to national security for these students at this point in their careers?
As for the war college faculty, while the AOL Defense article asserts a civilian professorial-class (versus military faculty, former military faculty, or ‘practitioners’ like those from the CIA or State Department) will result in better educational outcomes, there is no evidence of such truth offered other than presumption. Again, all other things being equal, a war college would likely prefer their faculty members to all have earned doctorates, however things are never equal. Is it possible that non-PhD. military members, former military members, or practitioners could help students more fully achieve their desired learning outcomes? Absolutely, because at the end of the day, we are talking about
teaching education, where passion, organization, skill, classroom management, and the likes rule the day and the easily measured discriminators (articles published, degrees earned, schools attended, etc.) matter less.
So a better take on improving the faculty at the war colleges might include spending some time and money on understanding, as the Gates Foundation is now attempting to do, the things that a great teacher does. And speaking of Gates, there’s this:
Teachers unions can be counted on "to stick up for the status quo," he says, but he believes they can be nudged in the right direction. "It’s kind of scary for them because what we’re saying is that some of these people shouldn’t be teachers. So, does the club stand for sticking up for its least capable member or does it stand for excellence in education? We’ll, it kind of stands for both."
While the teachers unions, per se, don’t exist at the war colleges, the self-preservation instinct of the academic and professorial-class is powerful. And while I’d agree that the war colleges aren’t much interested in faculty research or scholarship, there’s a reason for that: it isn’t that important to their teaching mission. And why isn’t it that important? Because life gets in the way regarding opportunity; lack of graduate assistants; lack of ambition and; absence of a punishment if scholarship is not achieved.
At the end of the day, the war colleges are about the students they send back into the world which is greatly influenced by the quality of
teaching education these students receive, but perhaps more so, the students themselves. So now, instead of more whine and cheese regarding the SDE experience, how about this back-of-the-napkin money saving and reform oriented proposal: close all the war colleges for two years and then reopen them in their revamped forms (faculty, facilities, curriculum, and perhaps, new locales). Why? It’s too hard to reform an institution that’s concurrently going through massive reform and still performing its mission. Also, DoD is going to be tapped to pay some dues in the time ahead, so this is all a win-win, right?