Dynamic Thinking Is No Threat

By Lawrence Lengbeyer, PhD

“An officer’s first weapon is their mind.”

                                   —Colonel Stephen Liszewski, USMC, Commandant of Midshipmen, U.S. Naval Academy,19 Aug 2015 

Navy Under Secretary Thomas Modly recently  urged  the Navy “to recruit, train, equip and  educate the most quick-minded, flexible, collaborative, innovative, and transparent people we can find.” He maintained that Navy education must be comprehensively reviewed and refreshed to produce “agile people” who “thirst for knowledge,” are “adept at thinking, learning, and processing information quickly,” and excel at “thinking differently.” The  response  in  Proceedings  to this initiative from my fellow Naval Academy educator Dr. Marcus Jones was highly skeptical.  

Dr. Jones's argument amounts to this: If Navy education is redirected toward producing people who are eager and quick to learn, and who think in creative ways, then it will likely fail to achieve this result, given the pathetic track record of U.S. educational reform; and, worse, it will undermine the conformity, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and hardiness that the Navy rightly recognizes as the traits most crucial for warfighting effectiveness.

Fortunately for the Navy, Dr. Jones’s argument is faulty. There is ample room to improve the thinking (and thereby job performance) of Navy and Marine Corps personnel without compromising their other valuable traits.  

Dr. Jones's core error is his distortion of Mr. Modly's vision into “straw men”: naval personnel—including Naval Academy graduates—who, due to having developed agile minds, will be so deviant, untraditional, wildly exploratory, and “edgy” that they are unlikely to maintain abiding commitments to the Navy's purposes, values, and hierarchical structure. They will be more intelligent and innovative, but therefore so prone to "revel in the speculative, the unfamiliar, or the mysterious," to “disregard inconvenient rules and make up risky new ways” of doing things, and to “reject[] established norms” that they will be unable to function as team players within existing paradigms and institutions and will "undermin[e] the services’ vital cultures of hierarchy and cohesion." 

But does this extravagant stereotype sound like the people  you know who possess probing, questioning, critical minds? The unfair, and unrealistic, depiction results from what logicians would term a “false dichotomy,” the false assumption that there are only two possibilities: either one can be committed to the Navy’s ways and ideals but intellectually wooden, or one can be intellectually bright-eyed, avidly raising questions and pursuing answers, but only by being so individualistic and neurotic as to be unable to accommodate to the goals and norms of a centralized institution such as the Navy. The zero-sum assumption—that we can hope for conformity, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and hardiness, or for intellectual agility and creativity, but not both—seems entirely implausible. These two dimensions seem to have at most a small causal interconnection. If there is any trade-off between them, as Dr. Jones alleges, then the Navy ought to strenuously avoid those agreeable conformists who cannot have their minds awakened without losing devotion to the Navy collective enterprise.  

Consider my midshipmen students. Aside from exceptions (some very impressive), they often are mentally lethargic, incurious, imprecise, egocentric, simpleminded, and indifferent as readers and reasoners (and blissfully untroubled about all these limitations). The responsibility for this mental mediocrity cannot be laid entirely at the feet of the students. It is partly due to the Naval Academy’s tolerance for mediocrity and the lack of wholehearted support for educational experimentation. (I myself was pressed by the Academy's performance evaluation system to stop developing and offering a cutting-edge logic and critical thinking course, despite the significant measurable gains it produced; I also had a hard time getting a second shot at offering a new communication ethics course. Pedagogic innovation that does not quickly produce student approval via end-of-course student opinion forms is often discouraged.)  

Now, if the forthcoming "new revolution in education" hailed by Mr. Modly were to turn midshipmen into energized learners and critical thinkers, would this somehow negate their traits of conformity, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and hardiness? By what causal mechanism? Would those traits no longer be needed to make it through four demanding years at the Academy? Though Dr. Jones implies that the two sets of traits "coexist harmoniously in only a marginal number of people," he offers no support for this claim, which seems far-fetched—as well as a terribly cynical view of the Navy organization. Is agile, rigorous, and creative thinking incompatible with commitment to the Navy's culture and values? Or with vigor or endurance in warfighting? Only in the minds of those beholden to a tenacious anti-intellectual stereotype that erroneously associates mental vitality with physical feebleness, cowardice, absent-mindedness, indecisiveness, and impracticality. Asking agreeable conformists to develop intellectual virtues is not (contrary to Dr. Jones) like "expecting good baseball players to win a hockey game" but more like expecting good baseball players to develop better tactical awareness in the field or on the base paths. Would turning Navy athletes into more agile and creative thinkers lead them to rebel against the coaching staff, or stop playing together as a team, or defect to Army?  

Yes, some agile thinkers might question the Navy’s culture and hierarchical structure. But shouldn’t we wish for periodic disruptions of this sort, helping the organization maintain its effectiveness by adapting intelligently to a fast-changing environment? Consider its contemporary norms of conformity, as revealed at a meeting I once observed in the Academy's Rickover Hall: an admiral offered culminating remarks that were simply incoherent—whereupon every one of the dozen or more assembled senior officers just sat uncomfortably confused, preferring to leave the meeting mystified rather than question the boss's pronouncement. By contrast, seeding the naval services with those who expect vigorous thinking not only from themselves, but also from their peers, subordinates, and superiors, will provide resistance against error and constant pressure for improvement. According to recent research (see the 2018 book  In Defense of Troublemakers ), those who sincerely challenge a majority’s thinking typically raise the quality of that thinking. Eager-to-learn “different thinkers” will help create better plans and policies and more intelligently implement those presented to them. They are not likely to be radical weirdos who undercut  esprit de corps  and cooperation toward shared goals and purposes. Did “different thinking” undermine the Manhattan Project? The space program? Has it not repeatedly produced strategic and tactical ingenuity on the battlefield?  

Dr. Jones suggests that the Navy, in its institutional wisdom, knows that Mr. Modly’s deviation from conventional thinking on education is misguided—that the Navy's doing little to instill or reward critical and creative thinking, or to measure how well its educational programs develop such thinking, indicates a deep and informed institutional choice to avert such thinking. This is the sort of dubious Panglossian reasoning—whatever  is , has been  chosen , and  rightly  chosen—that would infer that, say, Congress’s dysfunction is Congress’s intentional response to its deep insight that effective bipartisan deal-making would be bad for the institution. Such reasoning is a recipe for clinging complacently (or perhaps resignedly) to a defective status quo.  

Does Mr. Modly’s program have any chance of producing results? Dr. Jones describes in some detail how shockingly minimal is the intellectual growth that college education has been able to produce in students. We at the Academy often fail to maintain the spark of curiosity that some plebes bring with them, and fail even more consistently to reignite it for those who lost it during the mindless lockstep march through U.S. K-12 education. As in the old Soviet joke, “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work,” my USNA faculty colleagues could, without much exaggeration, say about the future officers sitting in our classrooms, “We pretend to teach them, and they pretend to learn.” This is not a new problem. I, like the typical midshipman, arrived in college having mastered the role of high-achieving, incurious dullard—unable to find a single course in the enormous Harvard course catalog that I actually was interested in taking.  

Yet I left college four years later hungry for learning, firing questions in every direction. The big difference was the culture of the place: active, critical, curious, creative, with “different” thinking valued by everyone, my peers most of all. At the Naval Academy, such thinking can make a midshipman an outcast, someone considered too compliant with the authorities and too dense or naive (or, if a homeschooler, socially inept) to know how the education game is really played—i.e., do the minimum academic work required to get the grades one wants and put one's energy into sports, socializing, or other extracurricular activities. 

But none of this constitutes an argument against Mr. Modly’s proposal—which is to correct this sad state of affairs, to seize upon novel, promising methods for multiplying the “human capital” represented by Navy personnel. That education has made little progress heretofore does not show that this situation is inevitable. After all, numerous human enterprises—think medicine, or the quest for human flight, for instance—have long histories of minimal progress followed by breakthroughs and steep improvement. Should we just throw in the towel on education, as recommended by those who believe that education does little more than “signal” traits such as conscientiousness and conformity? Not when there remain many promising educational approaches waiting to be tried, and more yet to be invented. The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency (IARPA) is funding research aimed at making intelligence officers more intelligent; let the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) invest in developing new educational methods that unleash and cultivate intellectual passion and excellence in military personnel. Consider just a few already-existing ideas that might be tried at military academies:

  • Communal self-teaching seminars (as already used at St. John's College, just “over the wall” from the Naval Academy) 
  • Required critical thinking courses (or across-the-curriculum programs) that have students map arguments graphically (an approach that has produced encouraging results at universities including Melbourne and Princeton) 
  • A reorientation of students, faculty, and curriculum away from content learning and toward developing  intellectual virtues
  • An entirely different system of grades, or no grades at all 
  • Altered admissions requirements, to incentivize pre-college efforts in critical and creative thinking, and possibly including required “gap year(s)” prior to matriculation 
  • Multiple required law courses, to really teach skills of reading, reasoning, and analysis (and reinforce commitment to the Constitutional system) 

Our military has, to its great credit, on occasion led the broader American culture in positive new directions. Let it now turn loose its collective ingenuity toward replacing what is largely an educational charade with something that truly motivates its people to think, question, and learn. Given the growing crisis facing the existing educational paradigm, there has never been a better time for an exploratory, forward-thinking initiative to “question our current assumptions of our naval educational continuum.” Let’s aim high and not shy away from the challenge.   

Lawrence Lengbeyer  teaches ethics and other topics in philosophy at the U.S. Naval Academy.



Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Fri, 2018-10-05

Maritime Security DialogueNaval Aviation: Readiness Recovery for Combat A discussion with VADM DeWolfe Miller, USNCommander,...

The New China Challenge

An Evening of Naval History

View All

From the Press

22 September - Annual Symposium

Sat, 2018-09-22

22 September - Annual Symposium

Sat, 2018-09-22

John B. Lundstrom

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 140 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership