Educating the Navy for the Long Haul

By Peter A. C. Long

Confucius's aphorism speaks volumes about the value of a long-term investment in education. Most naval officers will acknowledge the intrinsic value of education, but the U.S. Navy—unlike its sister services—has yet to commit to the long-term, value-added philosophy of liberal education.

History clearly demonstrates the Navy's role as a heavily tasked, quick-reaction force—one the nation calls upon to respond rapidly in times of crisis. To meet this challenge, the Navy has built one of the world's finest training and technical education systems. While this near-term-results focus is appropriate in many areas, it has had an unintended negative impact on the professional development of our officer corps. The principal defect is that it fails to recognize the fundamental need for a common and broadly based educational core.

After World War II, the Navy made technical education the sine qua non of officer development in order to support such modern technology as missiles and nuclear power. Technical education, however, is narrowly focused, and this focus has led the Navy to adopt a highly restrictive sub-specialist approach to officer development. A scan of Navy Professional Military Education (PME) policy statements over the past few decades reveals a consistent inclination to state PME goals in terms of the percentages of officers who should have such education at different grade levels. This approach constitutes a fundamentally different approach than that of the other services, which consider PME an integral part of an officer's professional development and hold officers accountable for failing to achieve acceptable progress in their individual professional military education program. Although the terms sometimes are used interchangeably, training does not equate to education, because education focuses on bringing out the potential unique to each student. Professional Military Education is, in relative terms, a form of liberal education. Unlike technical curricula, which focus on inculcating objective skills and narrow subject-matter mastery, liberal education seeks to educe and hone the mental aptitudes inherent in, and unique to, each officer. Moreover, common exposure to a progressive education derived from such fundamental disciplines as history, management, behavioral science, and economics has an integrating effect on an otherwise stove-piped, specialist officer corps.

Our officers deserve a career-long professional development program that runs from pre-commissioning education, through community-specific training, to horizon-broadening postgraduate education. The complexity of the future demands this if we are to remain competitive. The goal is not knowledge for knowledge 's sake, but rather knowledge that orders the thought process to cope with future uncertainty. It is education at its best and it can provide an avenue for change in the Navy's culture. We pride ourselves in being topnotch operators who know well the operational demands that are placed upon our officer corps in the course of their military career. Yet, as technology progresses—and regardless of fleet commitments—we always seem to be able to make room for more training to keep up with the latest and greatest equipment. Put bluntly—we accommodate the activities that we believe to be the most valuable and important to our success. In contrast, we often plead the priority of operational commitments when we cannot find room for Professional Military Education. Consider the notion, however, that nothing is more important to our Navy's future success than a truly educated and well-trained officer corps.

That's a bold statement . . . but it is absolutely true! The key to future success is the ability to react effectively to changing circumstances. We train to prepare ourselves for the known and expected, but we must seek education to prepare ourselves for the unknown and unexpected. Education conditions the mind to recognize changes in our environment, analyze the impact of these changes, and creatively synthesize a solution to harness the effects of the change. The shorthand for this process is "thinking" as opposed to merely "reacting" in a predictable manner. Years ago a team of Harvard educators put it this way: "Education is not merely the imparting of knowledge, but the cultivation of certain aptitudes and attitudes in the mind."

The Navy does a very good job, in virtually all communities and sub-specialties, of training its officers to function effectively in their primary area of responsibility and expertise. Each step in an officer's career is carefully monitored, and appropriately focused training is provided "just in time" to meet the needs of the next assignment. The path from division officer, to department head, to executive officer (XO), to commanding officer (CO) is clear. But what path prepares officers to succeed beyond the level of XO/CO? Is it reasonable to expect our senior leaders to pick up whatever skills they need as flag officers through on-the-job training? Are they expected to gain an understanding and appreciation for joint and multinational doctrine in their spare time? Should they study and analyze the lessons of past military campaigns by watching The History Channel? Should they think strategically about the future while deployed and standing watch? Should the amount of time that our future leaders spend in the formal study of complex decision-making be determined by how many crises may or may not arise during their operational assignments?

The answer to all of these questions is a resounding "No." Just as time must be allocated to enable officers to learn how to be division officers, so must time be made available for officers to learn how to be the leaders of their service. Early in our careers, officers come to understand an unspoken Navy attitude, which dictates the difference between training that we must have , and education which is nice to have if you get the chance . Future success demands that we reassess our priorities.

The dilemma is not new; we have struggled with the mix for decades. Most recently, the Chief of Naval Operations's Executive Panel chartered a high-level study of officer professional development led by former Navy Under Secretary Robert Murray. The Chief of Naval Education and Training is leading an effort to develop a comprehensive officer development master plan, which will encompass the entire range of training, education, and experience that should be provided to naval officers throughout a normal career. Moreover, the Navy is investing significant financial and human resources in the Naval War College to ensure that is ready to meet the challenges of educating the service's 21st century warriors. Yet a clearly articulated policy regarding the course change needs to be made—combined with follow-up actions. These calls for change must not be met with a head nod followed by relegation to the bottom drawer. Junior and senior officers must realize that success, not only today but also in the future, requires tools that only education (and not training) can provide.

Foremost is an orderly thinking process steeped in the cumulative wisdom of the past and open to the possibilities and uncertainties of the future. We must acknowledge the value of this type of education and prove its importance to our success as a Navy by making room in our officers' career paths to attend postgraduate schools and war colleges.

The men and women who have been trained—and educated—to meet the challenges of the new millennium will shape the future of the Navy and the nation. Officers who have mastered the very different, but equally important, skills of seamanship and scholarship should fill the key leadership roles.

Rear Admiral Long is the first Provost of the Naval War College. He is a graduate of the Naval Postgraduate School and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, and holds a Doctoral Degree in Learning Technology.

 

 
 

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