To fix PME, decide whether you are training or educating officers — and do it! By LTC Jason Dempsey, USA

Best Defense department of PME reform

The Scales and Kuehn discussion on PME has piqued a long-running interest of mine in the failures of professional military education (PME). While obviously I am more with Scales in my overall assessment of the system, I think Kuehn’s piece helps frame the debate because it highlights some of the confusion over the purpose of PME. Specifically, it seems our colleges cannot decide whether they are in the business of training or educating. This confusion has led to a muddied curriculum and a faculty that is required to cover both educating and training, and which as a result fails to do either one very well. This was briefly mentioned in the panel comments, but I think deserves further elucidation as the root source of the failure of PME (and I’ll limit my focus here to CGSC).

For starters, let’s look at the faculty. These are typically officers on the verge of retirement who have been out of the operational force for several years and are interested in academia, but have not yet completed advanced degrees or had any classroom experience outside of the military system. This places them on the fringes of both the operational force and academia. Yet we ask them to cover both the ‘core curriculum’ and electives, essentially guaranteeing mediocrity in both areas. Kuehn’s call for a renewed emphasis on the split between the core and electives portion of CGSC is refreshing, but doesn’t go far enough.

The ‘core curriculum’ at our service colleges should be restructured with a singular focus on training officers for the command and/or staff responsibilities they are about to assume. This is largely the case now, but the focus should be similar to what occurs at the pre-command courses, where senior leaders rotate in to provide insights, mentorship, and current operational perspectives. At CGSC this would mean that commanders and their staffs at the brigade and battalion levels would be the ones rotating in to instruct and to facilitate scenario-driven staff exercises. This would ensure that students received the most relevant training available while reinforcing to the officer corps the importance of taking the time and effort to properly train the next generation.

As for the elective portion of PME, at least at CGSC, the list of offerings should be considered an outright embarrassment. Again, because of not understanding the difference between training and education, valuable time — that could be spent broadening — is instead spent on ‘courses’ that are mere recitations of doctrinal manuals or job descriptions and are about as far as you can get from anything broadening or academically rigorous (‘Logistics for the Battalion XO’, etc.). This is not to say that there are not great instructors and courses out there (the history departments are indeed strong, and I’d be remiss not to tip my hat to Don Connelly for carrying the torch for the study of civil-military relations). But, as Kuehn notes, these few good courses are drowned out in a curriculum that could only charitably be described as vo-tech for field grades. So long as we aren’t kidding ourselves that this is a broadening experience or equivalent to education, fine, but if we are serious about the need to get officers to think critically and out of their comfort zone than it is this portion of PME that needs the most restructuring.

Personally, I’d be for replacing the elective periods with sending officers off to get one year graduate degrees — let the experts in education educate, while the Army focuses on training. But in the end, no significant reforms will take place until we recognize the differences between training and education, and decide which our PME system should focus on.

Lt. Col. Jason Dempsey is a career infantry officer and a graduate of a couple levels of PME, including the infantry officers basic course, the amphibious warfare school at Quantico, and CGSC. He also holds a PhD from Columbia University and is the author of Our Army: Soldiers, Politics and American Civil-Military Relations.

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