An academic redoubt

Felipe Fernández-Armesto salutes the US military's intellectual proving ground

May 7, 2009

When I left Denver, the sky was pale and menacing, like a killer's eyes. But after a couple of hours, the road climbed through pine forests, and the sky turned livid red. My destination was one of the strangest places in the world: the US Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs. I was going to give a lecture. Nowadays, I never seem to travel for any other purpose.

The academy's location is the first of many surprising things about it. The mountains that surround the site on three sides are a hazard to aviation. The altitude is an inconvenience for glider flights. But the founders of the academy, 55 years ago, were not aiming to build a training ground. The architecture, too, is strange. The main building is the biggest academic edifice in the world. Long, low and rigidly angular, it scars the mountainside, like a Greek key carved straight on to rock. The horizontal lines and severe glass facades defy the surrounding wilderness. Then the chapel appears, raising a cluster of white, gleaming High-Tech spires to the sky, like the flames of a torch.

Stranger still are the lives the cadets lead. Various educational routes can lead to commissions in the US Armed Forces, but all the officers are graduates, and the three great academies - West Point for the Army, Annapolis for the Navy and Colorado Springs for the Air Force - represent the gold standard. These are not narrowly vocational institutions, but fully fledged universities, where students - straight from high school in most cases - follow a curriculum as broad as in almost any civil university, under military discipline.

They wear uniform and live the life of a garrison. They are not allowed out except according to a scale of privileges determined by rank and length of study. At the start of their courses, in Colorado Springs, they are not allowed visitors or telephone calls. Freshmen must keep to appointed paths in their routes around campus. They all rise and go to bed at fixed hours. Parades, military exercises and compulsory sports punctuate the day. In the first year, there are no summer holidays. Afterwards, cadets get three weeks off in summer and a fortnight at Christmas.

All this formality and rigidity makes the classes seem sublimely relaxed. Class starts with everyone snapping to attention and exchanging salutes, and never settles into the familiar slouch that prevails in most academic environments. But intellectual equality replaces hierarchy as soon as the lesson begins. This is the place where cadets can question their officers and get credit for it. They relish and exploit the chance. They are clever young men and women: the academy - where, almost uniquely in the US, the students pay no fees or charges - is one of the most selective universities in the country. The classroom frees their minds for a kind of unrestricted debate unthinkable on the parade ground. Classes are small - 17 strong, on average, so that all the cadets can take part actively in the exchange of ideas. I have never had better questions after giving a talk to an undergraduate audience.

The declared mission is to "educate, train and inspire". The atmosphere deserves that maligned and opprobrious epithet, "liberal". Government policies and military strategies are exposed to searching, constructive criticism. Professors - who include a few civilians at Colorado Springs and many at Annapolis - see it as their obligation to form officers who think independently, scrutinise their own commands and give fearless advice to their superiors. The prevailing concept of a good officer is of a citizen like other citizens - typical except in being well educated, highly intelligent and deeply disciplined.

The curriculum is diverse. Global history, moral philosophy and political science are part of the core - compulsory for all cadets. Most students major in engineering, military science or aerospace studies, but plenty choose other sciences - especially psychology and biology - or one of the many humanistic disciplines on offer, which include art, history, English and modern languages. Social sciences, politics, economics, business studies and law are also available.

I have not been to West Point, but I suspect that they are more conservative there than at the air and naval academies, which I know at first hand. West Point's programme in my own discipline, history, seems more conservative and narrower. Soldiers, I find, are usually more right-wing than sailors and airmen. Coups are commonly soldiers' work, while sailors man the battleship Potemkin. Tradition binds the generations of a regiment, whereas navies and air forces are, in a sense, cauldrons of reform, scrapping and renewing their ships and squadrons all the time. Seamen "see the sea" but aim to see the world, while flight gives air forces a broad, high vista. Armies, meanwhile, crawl across the earth and acquire the characteristics of a conservative mind: focused on practically intractable detail and immune to visionary persuasion.

Still, at least for the Navy and Air Force, I can attest to the excellence of the education US officers get at their academies. It is a comfort to know that however dumb the commander-in-chief, or however much of the underclass gets into uniform, the officers of the world's only superpower are men and women whose education is a guarantee of breadth of culture and of mind. Like so much of the US higher education system, the academies seem, from Europe, estimable, enviable and sadly inimitable.

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