Academies are urged to change course

Focus more on foreign language, culture, expert says

February 02, 2007|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,sun reporter

A former Army officer and Middle East analyst has called on the nation's service academies to trade in their focus on engineering for a more modern curriculum on international relations.

Andrew Exum, who led combat units in two tours in Afghanistan and one tour in Iraq, said the engineering coursework required at the U.S. Naval Academy and U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., is a holdover from the 19th century, when that was the direction of future warfare.

Now, with constant challenges from unstable societies and radicalism, cultural understanding should be the new norm, he wrote in a new policy paper for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank where he is a fellow.

"The service academies have to get serious about international relations," Exum said in a phone interview yesterday. "We need officers to be more culturally aware, more worldly and to have skills in the strategic languages like Arabic, Mandarin and Pashtu, but to do that, they will have to make some real changes to the curriculum."

Senior academic officials in Annapolis, West Point and at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., say they are actively pursuing this goal using tens of millions of dollars allocated by the Defense Department, hiring faculty and sending hundreds of students abroad for language immersion and study abroad programs.

"I think the author, Andrew Exum, has really shown light on exactly the right discussion," said William Miller, the Naval Academy's academic dean. "We all should be asking ourselves how we should be preparing the next generation of leaders in the Navy, Marine Corps, Army and Air Force for the 21st- century battlefield. We are always having that discussion."

Exum, who was commissioned through the Reserve Officer Training Corps after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, did graduate research while attending the American University in Beirut on how well junior officers in the Army were prepared to lead in the Iraq War.

"Compared to the greater American public, Army officers overall are more worldly, much more likely to have lived abroad, more likely to read news on a daily basis and are more likely to speak a foreign language, and those are all good things," he said. "The bad thing is that they weren't prepared for the cultural environment they found in Iraq and Afghanistan."

While he lauded recent strides to promote cultural awareness, Exum in the policy paper, published Monday, made three challenges to Annapolis and West Point (he left out the Air Force Academy because he said he was not familiar with the training of Air Force officers).

First, the service academies should focus less on an engineering curriculum, he said. Second, they should send more cadets and midshipmen abroad, perhaps as many as 30 percent of all graduates.

And third, Congress and the Defense Department need to consistently fund the study abroad programs.

Miller said the difficulty with changing the curriculum at the Naval Academy is that many graduates need sufficient training to operate nuclear reactors in submarines or work with other cutting-edge technology in the surface fleet.

Only 12 percent to 13 percent of each graduating class enters the Marine Corps infantry field, officers who have been on the front lines in the war on terrorism. And among those, 50 percent are social science or humanities majors.

Still, he said, recent curriculum changes have modified the traditional "Western Civilization" course requirements, instead offering a more global picture of history and society and then allowing midshipmen to specialize in one area.

Officials at all three academies said they are well on their way to sending 30 percent of cadets and midshipmen abroad and hoped to surpass that figure. In the 2005-2006 academic year, the Naval Academy sent 150 midshipmen through language immersion programs, 10 to full semesters abroad at foreign military academies and others to train with foreign navies during summer break.

The Air Force Academy sent 18 cadets to foreign military academies, 12 to foreign civilian universities, 200 to short cultural immersion programs and 225 to language immersion. West Point sent more than 150 to foreign countries, and set a goal to send all language majors, about 10 percent of graduates, for a semester abroad.

Money for the programs is consistent, officials said. The Naval Academy was given $3.2 million a year to send students abroad, add language and culture faculty, as well as $10 million to upgrade teaching facilities; the Air Force Academy received $20 million over five years for the same purposes, and West Point $6.3 million a year until 2011.

"Our foreign language department is the best funded of any academic program that I run at the academy," Miller said. "I think it's indicative of the importance attached to this shift in emphasis by other military departments."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.