A discussion about advanced education of military personnel

Summary:  It’s sad to read long articles about our military, so often grossly inferior to an analysis by Martin van Creveld written decades ago.  Our difficulty  learning (our broken OODA loop  is perhaps America’s greatest ill.  Links to other posts about our broken OODA loops are at the end.


Today we examine a chain of articles about the education of American military personnel.  All fumbling around in territory van Creveld covered brilliantly and thoroughly in Training of Officers: From Military Professionalism to Irrelevance (1990).

  1. Marine Can’t Recall His Lessons at For-Profit College“, Bloomberg, 15 December 2009
  2. Quote of the Day – Degree Mill Edition“, James Joyner, Outside the Beltway, 15 December 2009
  3. Markets in Everything“, Megan McArdle, blog of The Atlantic, 15 December 2009 — How the military encourage diploma mills.
  4. “Why Friends Don’t Let Friends Read McArdle: Keep the Military Dumb edition”, Thomas Levenson, the Inverse Square Blog, 28 December 2009 — Parts One and Two.  (no excerpt provided)


Marine Can’t Recall His Lessons at For-Profit College“, Bloomberg, 15 December 2009

Marine Corps Corporal James Long knows he’s enrolled at Ashford University, one of at least a dozen for-profit colleges making money off active-duty military with subsidies from American taxpayers. He just can’t remember what course he’s taking.

… For-profit online colleges are taking over higher education of the U.S. military, lured by a Defense Department pledge of free schooling up to $4,500 a year for active members of the armed services, costing taxpayers more than $3 billion since 2000. The schools account for 29% of college enrollments and 40% of the half-billion-dollar annual tab in federal tuition assistance for active-duty students, displacing public and private nonprofit colleges, according to Defense Department and military data.

The shift is leading to educational shortcuts and over-zealous marketing, said Greg von Lehmen, chief academic officer of the University of Maryland University College in Adelphi, the adult-education branch of the state system and one of the earliest and biggest providers of military education. “In these schools, the rule is faster and easier,” von Lehmen said. “They’re characterized by increasingly compressed course lengths and low academic expectations. One has to ask: Is the Department of Defense getting what it is seeking?”

Quote of the Day – Degree Mill Edition“, James Joyner, Outside the Beltway, 15 December 2009

I taught some online graduate courses, aimed mostly at overseas military officers, at Troy when I was teaching full time at their main campus. Trying to treat it as if it were a legitimate graduate class was a constant source of frustration. Students simply didn’t have the time to do the reading and research — they were, after all, on active duty in a military with a high operations tempo. But they’d been led to believe that the courses would be easy — there wouldn’t be much work and they could do it at their leisure. The school got a lot of money, paid its faculty quite generously, and the students got the credentials they wanted. Those of us who resisted the degree mill model were messing up that model. (I’m reliably informed that the rigor has picked up, although not to the level one would expect in a traditional on campus graduate program even at Troy.)

But the military is as much at fault here as the degree mills. They quite literally treat college education as a check in a box. A master’s degree from Harvard or one from Walden both get officers over the “must have master’s degree” hurdle for promotion to lieutenant colonel. And, since few officers are given the time to attend classes at a real school, the incentive to get a dubious degree in the little spare time available is powerful. The same is true, to a somewhat lesser extent, in the federal civil service and for teachers in many school systems across the country: It’s the degree that matters, not the learning.

The obvious solution is to start allotting time for people to go to school, if getting an education is really important. The less obvious solution is to quit rewarding the attainment of educational credentials if, as it would seem, a bogus degree is as valid as a real one. To the extent that the skills imparted by higher education are valuable to an employer, they should be apparent in actual job performance. So just reward people who do their jobs well and don’t worry about what degrees they have.

Markets in Everything“, Megan McArdle, blog of The Atlantic, 15 December 2009 — How the military encourage diploma mills.

I get the impression that the primary market for diploma mill degrees is in various branches of the government. The civil service system, the army, and various local departments like teachers, all automatically reward you with higher pay if you get a degree. Since they don’t distinguish between the caliber of the schools, the obvious solution is to find the easiest course you can. Undoubtedly this happens in private organizations too, but since the purpose of a degree in the private sector is signalling rather than box-checking, there is some incentive for gravitating towards higher-quality degrees.

The obvious thing to do is either end the box checking entirely, or set the quality bar much higher. The problem is, realistically many people (like active duty military) do not have time to get a real degree. And the people who already have bogus degrees from diploma mills are senior, and therefore, have some power with which to block such an initiative.

For more information from the FM site

Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.

Posts about America’s broken observation-orientation-decision-action loop (OODA loop):

  1. News from the Front: America’s military has mastered 4GW!, 2 September 2007
  2. Another cycle down the Defense Death Spiral, 30 January 2008
  3. The magic of the mainstream media changes even the plainest words into face powder, 24 April 2009
  4. The media – a broken component of America’s machinery to observe and understand the world, 2 June 2009
  5. We’re ignorant about the world because we rely on our media for information, 3 June 2009
  6. The decay of our government, visible for all to see, 3 June 2009
  7. A great, brief analysis of problem with America’s society – a model to follow when looking at other problems, 4 June 2009
  8. Does America have clear vision? Here’s an “eye chart” for our minds., 15 June 2009
  9. DoD did not consider troop levels when devising our latest Af-Pak war plans, more evidence that their OODA loop is broken, 8 October 2009


6 thoughts on “A discussion about advanced education of military personnel”

  1. The ticket-punching mindset is alive and well in government and the military, apparently. A many-headed hydra tough to kill off…

    This whole line of thought reminds me of BGen. Charles “Chuck” Yeager, perhaps America’s greatest test pilot, the man who broke the sound barrier, a decorate fighter ace of WWII, and wing leader in Vietnam. Yeager, who did not possess a college degree, but was renowned as one of the best engineering minds in the USAF, was almost thrown out of the service in the 1950s because he did not possess a college degree, and had not taken and passed test pilot’s school! By that time, Yeager had broken the sound barrier, and knew so much about test flight that he could have written the curriculum of the school.

    The morale of the story is that credentials are often overrated, and that it is performance that should count.

    The same mentality is present when the CIA attempts to fill agency jobs for intel analysts positions; they require as a pre-requisite, a degree in political science, international relations, or history, preferrably a masters or Ph.D. Having training in one of these fields, as former intel officer Ralph Peters (USA, Colonel, ret) has noted, does not automatically produde effective intel officers. Indeed, academic degrees are a very poor predictor over who will possess the gifts for intel analysis. Conversely, there many applicants w/o degrees in these fields, but perhaps in others, who’d make effective intel personnel, but can’t get in the door.

    The fact of the matter is that certain skills can’t be learned in a classroom, or a book, and only on the job via experience. Ideally, one will be training and unseful information from both spheres of learning, books and reading, versus real world experience.
    FM reply: Agreed! One reason the CIA misses most of the big events is that their staff of largely second tier academic-types are incapable of understanding the thinking of folks who defy the odds and change the world.

  2. When my Papa arrived in India in 1940 , he said he received a six week cram course in radio and Urdu , prior to taking convoys of equipment along mountain roads with local drivers . Lesson 1 was Understanding Popular Curses .

  3. An important reason the Marine Corps has prospered is it does not have its own academy. All Annapolis grads who go the Marines has to qualify as an infantryman first. All of the service academies have declined disastrously because they have been turned into colleges which is just what professional officers do not need at the foundation of their education. West Point does not any longer produce soldiers, mainly time-servers and bureaucrats. There are many fine men and women who become excellent officers in time but not because they were in the service academies. These need to be overhauled completely. The Air Force should be returned to the Army and West Point should become an academy again which produces people who know how to think under pressure, operate as engineers and experience deprivation to encourage appreciation for compassion and understanding. ROTC still produces wonderful officers, all volunteers who want to be in the military.

  4. Jono, I’d like to know what basis you have for absolutely condemning the service academies. They have issues, some of which I would consider endemic to the services as a whole, but holding up ROTC officers as the epitome of what should be is a joke. You comment that the academies have been turned into colleges, which is exactly what ROTC is. The one thing the academies still do wonderfully is put it’s cadets under pressure, with a fuller class load than most schools on top of military and athletic duties.

    As for deprivation, it could be worse than it is, then again training on half your weekends, 3 weeks maximum for summer leave, on top of a basic that’s half again as long as ROTC’s points to deprivation being experienced. Or just find out a bit the different life experiences between ROTC and academy cadets. And as to deprivation encouraging compassion and understanding, having gone through Combat Survival Training through the Air Force Academy, I can tell you dealing with no food, little sleep and lots of ground to cover doesn’t particularly encourage compassion or understanding. It leaves you hungry, irritated and irrational.

    I’m guessing you have a bone to pick with service academies, and possibly are an ROTC grad. I’m obviously biased towards the service academies. I’d say time serving and bureaucratic behavior are endemic to all officers, regardless of commissioning source. Lastly, I do not know a single person who went to a service academy that didn’t go there willingly. We are all volunteers. At one point most all of us signed up to do great things for our country. Why that changes is an interesting question I am not entirely able to answer.

  5. She knows this… how? That “impression?”

    I expected “telepathy”. Guess this means that Fabius Maximus and Thomas Levenson are not the same person. :) Although I’ve never seen the two of you together. :)
    FM note: The full excerpt from part 2 of Levenson’s great article:

    Nice phrasing, that. She gets that impression…from where, exactly? From a bodily orifice that this is too much of a family blog to mention, I’d guess.

    This is the real problem with the entire concept of McArdle as a serious person, someone who has the chips to play at the grown ups’ table of public discourse. She does not, on the evidence of her work, know much more than how to write tolerably smooth copy. And unlike the rest of us, me included, who may not know much about the range of stuff that interests us, she does not appear willing to do the work to arrive at even minimal competence.

    “I get the impression!” That’s a firing offense, or should be, in any real journalistic enterprise. At the very least it’s a clear “pay no attention to what follows” tag.

  6. it’s a nice article… we know with that education is a very important element in our lives, everything that happens in this life can not be separated from the educational process. Imagine if there is a country that does not have a good level of education, it will affect the quality of its people.

    Indonesia is one country that continued to improve the quality of education. In the future, expect the quality of Indonesian people can compete on the world stage.
    If you want to see the state of education in Indonesia, you can visit “Education in Indonesia“, Edulife, January 2010. hopefully can provide some feedback about the state of education in Indonesia

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