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The education of military elites

The Army of 2012 finds itself with similar challenges as its predecessors: how to provide units and organizations with knowledgeable leaders who are capable of ensuring success. This is especially difficult when faced with the requirements to support the Army Force Generation (ARFORGEN) model in the current operating environment. It is critical that the Army balance the immediate need for officers in the operational force with the longer term imperative to develop the senior officers who will lead and shape the future Army. Those senior officers should necessarily be a product of a senior level college (SLC) experience. To do otherwise harken to the assignment and education practices with junior officers of the Hollow Army. Some may challenge the assertion that the current process is not providing officers capable of succeeding at the strategic level. Clearly, some defense analysts and advisors as well as Members of Congress in their oversight role have made that assessment. Such are the findings of a recent congressional House Armed Services Committee study of professional military education.

The Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee conveyed that officers are serving in joint and service staff assignments without adequate educational preparation and that some operational commanders, including the Combatant Commanders, reportedly consider their staff officers lacking in certain critical abilities necessary to perform their jobs effectively. An expected challenge would be to question the value of senior level colleges as well as intermediate schools for those officers identified as high performers and possessing exceptional potential. If these officers are obviously talented and proven under the stresses of demanding assignments, it is worth asking what evidence exists that our schools would make them better. To answer such questions, the U.S. Army War College (USAWC) conducts a bi-ennial survey of general officers who receive its graduates.

While it may be the case that high performing officers could be successful regardless of whether they attend a senior level college, it is difficult to dismiss the value of education in preparing for strategic level responsibilities. As additional evidence to support this claim, it is useful to remind ourselves of the role of continuing education in a myriad of professions such as medicine, law, education, science, and public administration. It is therefore compelling that military professionals would benefit from advanced education, which places extensive training and experience in context and develops the faculty for judgment in ambiguous environments. We have learned from the experiences of the 1970s, 1980s, and now in the 21st century that education is essential for developing officers and that timing the delivery of education assists in the development of competencies that ensure better performance in assignments requiring those abilities. It is important then to examine how these lessons are reflected in the current practices and culture of the Army.

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