Career-level schools: Fundamental or fundamentally flawed?

By Capt Darryl E Grissom

2000 Chase Prize Essay Contest: Honorable Mention

The dilemma is clear. “What do captains need to know?” This question, recently posed by the director of Command and Control Systems Course (CCSC) is at the heart of a debate throughout Marine Corps University. Currently, the focus of our career-level schools seems to be on tools, techniques, and procedures to train officers for staff work instead of educating leaders for combat situations. The program of instruction (POI), focused around core competencies such as the Marine Corps Planning Process and organization of the Marine Corps airground task force (MAGTF), compels students to study details without analyzing context. Since they breed technicians, not professional decisionmakers with the analytical background to continue their own education, current career-level schools are fundamentally flawed.

An irrefutable core competency of any military professional is the ability to make decisions. In the face of enemy fire, the ability to act and the courage to accept risk is fundamental to combat leadership. Officers of every specialty must be able to make effective decisions in a time-competitive environment.

However, career-level schools do not focus on developing an officer’s decisionmaking skills. For instance, CCSC allots 2 hours for Dr. Gary Klein to present his theory on decisionmaking styles and development. However, that seminar is the only attempt made to develop decisionmaking skills. In fact, more scheduled time is devoted to subjects such as financial management and web page design than to decisionmaking. Additional discussions or exercises designed to develop an officer’s ability are not scheduled.

The only effort to correct this deficiency is being made by one faculty advisor who runs a voluntary tactical decision game (TDG) workshop twice weekly before the first lecture of the day. This workshop allows students to analyze a situation and develop their solutions. It then requires the student to present his solution to the group. Thus, everyone benefits from analyzing the student’s tactical insight. It is a travesty that this workshop is not part of the POI. Except in a resident professional military education (PME) program, where can officers from every specialty learn from other’s decisions? There is not enough time between training cycles in the Operating Forces for officers to participate in TDG seminars.

The same training is missing from Amphibious Warfare School (AWS). AWS students often speak of the requirement for “process” over “product” in their exercises. Instead of focusing on the tactical decisions made, the faculty grades on the level of detail found in the student’s staff work. The POI is simply too full to allow the students to exercise their decisionmaking skills in TDGs.

How can this deficiency be filled? The answer is simple. Every day in any resident school should include a problem requiring students to make a decision and discuss their decision with their classmates and faculty.

Obviously, challenging students in this manner creates new problems for the faculty. However, the student benefits far outweigh the faculty burdens. We must learn to use resources such as interactive computer games to augment traditional TDGs. Time spent preparing these challenges would diminish valuable “PowerPoint slide preparation time.” But, developing the situations should be viewed as a learning opportunity for faculty as well as students.

Another facet of education is helping students develop their own PME programs and goals. This facet is missing from our schools. Students are not challenged to read interactively and think analytically about what they are reading. Instead, they are presented with a stack of publications and instruction manuals. Graded requirements focus on a level of detail beyond the analytical realm.

For instance, during a portion of CCSC, students focused on MAGTF logistics and combat service support. However, in the test, students were asked only to identify details: What is the correct operational graphic for Class IX supplies? A student could score 100 percent on an exam of this sort without actually understanding the significance of logistics to the success and failure of military campaigns. Does this student understand MAGTF logistics? No. He has simply memorized the instructor’s slides.

The ability to think critically about history can only be developed by careful study and reading. While at a resident school, studying history should be the focus. GEN George S. Patton preached:

[T]he memorizing of concrete examples is futile for in battle the mind does not work well enough to make memory trustworthy. One must be so soaked in military lore that he does the military thing automatically. The study of history will produce this result. The study of algebra will not.

For today’s Marines the message is still valid. The study of military history will produce professionals. The study of operational symbols will not.

Releasing officers to attend a resident school is expensive to the undermanned Operating Forces. We must not squander the opportunity. We must design a POI that allows students to develop a personal PME foundation on which to build. When they return to the Operating Forces, the foundation established in school will help them view current issues in a clearer historical context.

Certainly company grade officers must learn details such as composition of the force service support group and the Marine air control squadron. Fortunately, these topics are easily learned through careful employment of nonresident courses such as the AWS nonresident program. The nonresident course requires a student to familiarize himself with the Marine Corps Reference Publications since they are readily available in the Operating Forces. Multiple choice examinations certify that students have learned the material and understand the available resources. Since nonresident courses can teach details, resident courses shouldn’t be burdened with details.

If the goal of resident schools is to educate leaders, the curriculum must change. We must find a better balance between content heavy topics that have grown to be thought of as essential-financial management, grammar, and computer proficiency to name a few-and the timeless hallmarks of leaders-decisionmaking and professional reading. The Marine Corps will never fully realize the potential benefit of resident courses until it finds this balance.

What do captains need to know? They need to know how to make sound decisions in the chaos of battle. Let’s get away from detail-oriented subject matter and get on with the business of educating warriors.