Let’s abolish West Point: Military academies serve no one, squander millions of tax dollars

Our military academies aren’t filled with best and brightest. They are a boondoggle, on your dime, and serve no one

Let's abolish West Point: Military academies serve no one, squander millions of tax dollarsGraduation ceremonies at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, May 25, 2013.(Credit: Reuters/Mike Segar)

Many pundits have suggested that the Republicans’ midterm gains were fueled by discontent not merely with the president or with the (improving) state of the economy, but with government in general and the need to fund its programs with taxes.  Indeed, the Republican Party of recent decades, inspired by Ronald Reagan’s exhortation to “starve the [government] beast,” has been anti-tax and anti-government. Government programs, as many of their thinkers note, primarily exist to perpetuate their own existence. At the very least, they have to justify that existence.

In the spirit of hands across the aisle, I’d like to suggest that the first thing the new Republican majority devote itself to is not, say, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), but to converting the four hugely expensive and underproductive U.S. service academies (Navy, Army, Air Force and Coast Guard) — taxpayer-funded undergraduate institutions whose products all become officers in the military — to more modest and functional schools for short-term military training programs, as the British have repurposed Sandhurst.

Training is something the military does—education, certainly, is not. Indeed, undergraduate education of officers has already largely been outsourced, since most new officers come from the much cheaper Reserve Officer Training Corps programs at civilian universities (at one-quarter the cost of the academies), or from the several months of Officer Training Corps (one-eighth the cost) that follows either an enlisted career, or college. By all standards, these officers are just as good as those who come from the service academies, which now produce under 20 percent of U.S. officers.

The service academies once had a purpose: when they were founded in the 19th century (the Air Force split off from Army after World War II), college was classics and religion for gentlemen, so it made sense to have technical training institutes for people who would be in charge of increasingly technical warfare.  All the service academies have now to justify their cost and their pretensions, it seems, is their once-illustrious history, and the club of “tradition,” which they wield mercilessly against students who dare question why things are as they are

Who benefits from these strange historical holdovers? Not the taxpayers who fund them. The service academies are the vanity projects of the brass who went there. Their interest is in looking good (it’s good for their careers) and in keeping the tax dollars flowing. All official information taxpayers get about the service academies comes from the brass who run them and who use them as their private country clubs — at taxpayer expense. Military subordinates (which includes the students) are legally unable to offer conflicting views. The result is that the service academies are feel-good hype factories that operate with virtually no accountability and little oversight, the very definition of government bloat on autopilot.

Oh, yes—there’s one more group of people who defend these places to the death: the parents of the young military members who attend them. Why wouldn’t they?  Having their children admitted is a government-sponsored guarantee of a golden ticket to life: college at taxpayer expense with no student debts, the highest salary of any set of graduates, and guaranteed employment and (no-Obamacare-necessary) health benefits for at least five years, frequently well beyond. And no, most people in the military aren’t remotely likely to be shot at.

The service academies are poster boys of the out-of-control entitlement programs Republicans say they hate. So I say to the new Republican Senate majority and the strengthened House majority: Welcome to Washington, and get to work.

Yet they are alluring, and seem on the surface to offer a better alternative to other colleges that gave in long ago to the idea of keeping students happy with as few requirements as possible. By contrast, the mission statement for the Naval Academy, whose graduates cost taxpayers about half a million dollars each and who become officers in the Navy and Marine Corps — and where I am in my 28th year as a professor — makes for stirring reading. So too do the mission statements of the other service academies, all government programs with one purpose only, to graduate military officers: West Point for Army, Colorado Springs for the Air Force, and New London for the Coast Guard. Navy’s mission statement speaks—in contrast to almost all other colleges in the U.S.– of purpose. The mission of the Naval Academy is “to develop midshipmen morally, mentally and physically and to imbue them with the highest ideals of duty, honor, and loyalty,” How inspiring these ideals are!

There’s one problem. Nobody ever asks if we achieve these goals. I know after 28 years that we don’t.

The service academies in the new millennium are little more than military Disneylands for tourists. They are also cash cows for the brass who send their own children there at taxpayer expense: the children of multiple current and past administrators have gotten this taxpayer-supported present, which looks to me like (illegal) nepotism. And far from “imbu[ing] them with the highest ideals,” the service academies are in fact the graveyards of the ideals of students who come looking for something that transcends the watery values of secular humanism that are the best many other institutions can offer.

Conservatives bash welfare and food stamps, but in fact the service academies are the most generous government giveaway going. But just try, as I did, finding out who gives away the benefits or even on what basis. That’s information the taxpayers can’t know. Three rounds of FOIA requests to see who admits and why have hit the brick wall of the brass refusing to answer. The military prides itself on accountability, but the admissions office of Navy wants to give away the taxpayers’ money with no accountability whatsoever. Why did a football player get in, while the high-flyer woman who led her class was rejected? They informed me it was because admitted candidates showed “leadership.” What’s that?  How was this measured? (We don’t even require an interview to gauge charisma, which the vast majority of our students lack.) The message from the brass is clear:funnel the money to us and don’t ask questions.

Ever tried to debate with one of the beneficiaries of this taxpayer-supported largesse? I have, on NPR, when I was informed by a proud and defiant recipient of this government give-away that the service academies were a “national treasure”—not, coincidentally, one that enriched him personally. Service academy officers aren’t better—but almost invariably, they’re convinced they are: the administrators assure midshipmen repeatedly that they are “the best and the brightest” and are “held to a higher standard.”  So it’s not coincidence that service academy officers have a negative reputation in the military as smug ring-knockers. They didn’t have to work their way through college..

And they’re hardly, on average, the “best and the brightest.” In fact more than a quarter of the class has SAT scores below 600, and our average is lower than the nearby state school University of Maryland. Twenty percent of our class comes through a taxpayer-supported remedial 13th grade (another almost $50,000 per student for taxpayers). They fill our remedial courses (I am teaching some of these this semester, as a full professor)—a second try at getting them up to college level.  The top 10 percent are impressive. But they are the exceptions rather than the rule, and almost all (I know from talking to them) are deeply disillusioned by the Academy and by what they found there.

But we’re ferociously selective, right?  The Naval Academy has highly creative definitions of what constitutes an applicant, and applying these makes us more selective, on paper, than all but a handful of U.S. schools—and boosts our beauty quotient in the so-important U.S. News and World Report rankings. In fact we count all 7,500 applicants to a week-long summer program for 11th graders, that enrolls 2,500, as Naval Academy applicants, as well as anybody who fills out enough information to create a candidate number. It was just last year we stopped counting the 3,000 applicants to ROTC programs at civilian schools as Naval Academy applicants (say what?) when a reporter discovered it, but when I was on the admissions board for a year a decade ago we considered nothing close to the 20,000 applicants they claim. It was actually fewer than 5,000 candidates for 1,800 admits. Is this an outright lie to scam taxpayers, or simple unfamiliarity with the legal requirements of the Department of Education as to what constitutes an “applicant”?

Few students come for the classroom experience (many come for the “free” college degree) and academics are a tiny part of life at the academies. Most students are annoyed they have to go to class at all. Almost all are sleep-deprived (first-year students aren’t allowed to take naps) and try to fall asleep as soon as they sit down. Mind-dump memorization is the norm. Many classes are mandatory, even those that won’t be used later (for example electrical engineering for Marines)—including classes in “leadership” (which almost everyone agrees is a waste of time) and elementary computer knowledge, rendered sexy as “cybersecurity,” which is outdated by the time they graduate. (NB: everyone in the military goes to a specialty school, and if training is needed it should come closer to when it will be used.)

Most students think of leaving, but are told if they do they are quitters, and will flip burgers. Certainly it’s hard to pass up “free” college and guaranteed employment nowadays that college is so expensive and employment so iffy. The institutions wield these threats mercilessly against doubters, who almost always choose to stay.

The brass retire there in great style, and frequently have their funerals there. (When a recent chief of Naval operations retired there, the students were forbidden from walking on the pathways for the whole day.) Those picked to return as administrators to USNA live in high-ceilinged Victorian houses complete with groundskeepers. The superintendent, a three-star admiral, has a mini-White House with white-coated waitstaff.  It’s a great life for them, so of course they defend it.

The academies are putting your tax dollars to good use—if you like football. We’re taxpayer-supported Division I football schools (now Navy has joined the Big East) where military slots are given to low-scoring recruits. That’s how they keep conservatives happy. To keep liberals happy, we practice admissions based on racial factors so stark as to seem unconstitutional. The goal in such admissions  is defense, by the way, not the usual justification for race-conscious admissions that students learn from diversity. The idea at the service academies is that everybody is the same—and nothing is said about classroom interaction.

But they’re fiercely hard to get through, right? Wrong. The students are in the military, so we own them. We mother hen them: we teach not self-reliance but getting by. They get two sets of interim grades every semester, and if they are lagging, they are sent for mandatory tutoring (with me, among other people), are given help by a plethora of support staff and removed from teams if necessary—and if despite all this, they manage to fail a class, we own them in the summer too, so no problem, they repeat class for a higher grade. No wonder we graduate about 80 percent within five years (not counting the prep school). And when they graduate they get among the highest salaries for any college graduates, because it’s guaranteed by the military. If all the graduates of  one mediocre state university were guaranteed well paid employment by taxpayers, that college would be ranked high too.

The relentless nature of the hype, and its hollowness, prove the pointlessness of these places.  “Leaders to serve the Nation,” say the flags on posts at Annapolis. Nobody defines what a leader is, or asks whether somebody like a Silicon Valley innovator might not be serving her nation as much as, if not more than, a desk jockey officer in a fruitless military endeavor in Iraq. Or a first-grade teacher. Or a doctor, or a violinist, or a scientist: we graduate almost none of these. Leaders? Really? Officers, sure, because we have the congressional power to make our graduates officers. That’s a bit circular. And about half leave the military after their obligation of five to seven years as a junior officer, and some are let go before as the military downsizes. At your expense.

Do we teach them “character” as we claim we do? Apparently not. In fact about a third of the commanding officers removed in 2012 for malfeasance—record numbers for Navy—were Academy graduates. Read the newspapers for ongoing scandals (sexual assault, cheating) involving current service academy students, all of which the brass (whose prestige depends on all good news all the time) try to squash: these were merely a few bad apples, we hear, indicative of nothing. Keep the tax dollars for the football team flowing.

The service academies are trying to be both archaic and up to date. The result is that they’re deeply contradictory. We decided to make them colleges with a bachelor’s degree in the 1960s. We introduced majors including English and History rather than the lockstep engineering curriculum of the 1950s, but discourage them from taking one of the few non-technical majors (including my subject, English) if they show strengths in technical subjects. We even reserve the right to re-assign their major based on the “needs of the Navy.” Everybody gets a B.S. and our curriculum is heavy in engineering, a questionable choice nowadays that wars are changing in nature so quickly, and with the military really in need of creative thinkers. T-shirts in the midshipmen store proudly sport the logo “Not College.” How right they are.

They pretend to be colleges, but exercise military control. They forbid students (military subordinates) from contradicting in public the sunny hype of military brass eager for taxpayer dollars and to spit-shine their own careers. They make students go to football games to cheer. Intellectual development? That’s left for the top students, who succeed despite the institutions, not because of them. We’re proud of our Rhodes scholars, but we don’t talk about the taxpayer-supported remedial classes or the lack of enthusiasm of the middle of the pack.

Of course you’ll send your child to one if given the chance: college tuition with guaranteed employment, not to mention spiffy uniforms. How can you say no? How the neighbors will envy you! But the hardest charging of the students are the most disappointed (I talk yearly to disillusioned Marine and SEAL selectees), and all count the days until graduation. The service academies are all Potemkin villages, facades with nothing behind them: they don’t teach morals, they don’t make better officers, and they cost you a bundle. Most fundamentally, they combine two incompatible goals: military obedience and the freedom to question offered by knowledge. This is a combustible mixture as students ask why things are as they are and are told sharply that this is the way things are, and are punished if they insist. One day the lid is going to blow.

A confession: I believe in their mission, and so I am a disillusioned former True Believer, as indeed most of the students are. I would give anything if the service academies represented a real alternative to the largely soulless “take one course after another” factories of modern education. Or the only-liberals-allowed prepping for McKinsey.

[So what’s a better alternative to these if the service academies aren’t? Deep Springs, despite its positive portrayal in the recent movie “Ivory Tower,” isn’t it—I know, I taught there a term. Their students are antisocial and rendered comatose by getting up at 4 a.m. to milk the cows. The top-flight liberal arts colleges aren’t a solution in themselves either—I graduated from Haverford at age 19, after turning down Ivies, because it felt so stifling. I didn’t like the University of Chicago, my first graduate school, which was controlling—only Vanderbilt, where I got my Ph.D., offered me freedom. I wish the academies were the mixture of Athens and Sparta that might solve the problems with today’s academics, the fusion of the Cartesian halves of body and soul. But they aren’t: they’re hollow self-serving grinds where perfectly nice kids suffer.]

Still, it’s all paid for by somebody else and the head office assures your parents you’re doing fine. People fawn over you in your spiffy uniform in airports, and thank you “for your service.” Liberals are scared to object for fear of seeming anti-military. And you’re the Ken dolls of the conservatives.

Nice work if you, or your kids, can get it.

Bruce Fleming has been a professor in the English Department of the U.S. Naval Academy since 1987. The author of Annapolis Autumn, Why Liberals and Conservatives Clash, and numerous other books and articles on a wide range of issues, he has received an O. Henry short story award and the Antioch Review Award for Distinguished Prose, a career award. He is also a regular columnist with military.com. A native of Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Fleming lives outside of Annapolis with his family.

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