Wanted: Critical Thinkers

By Maj John D Jordan

Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting (MCDP 1), authoritatively states that “the military profession is a thinking profession,” yet a frequent topic of discussion in the pages of the Marine Corps Gazette is the difficulty of developing critical thinking skills in Marine officers.1 The persistence of this theme implies that these essential skills are not as prevalent as they need to be; in fact, most Marines could easily point to examples of officers of any grade who seemingly lack these faculties. Part of the reason for this lack may be that, while the Marine Corps strives to hone its officers’ critical thinking skills throughout their careers, it does not effectively screen for critical thinking skills prior to commissioning. More effective identification and recruitment of officer candidates who possess critical thinking skills would, over time, support a culture where critical thinking was deeply ingrained in the force.

Failures in critical thinking often manifest themselves in misunderstandings of causality and metrics, which can easily result in Marines working at cross purposes to their stated goals. One case was illustrated during a Command and Staff College seminar when an officer described how his unit’s information operations campaign was deemed a success because the relative of a high-level insurgent had turned him in to local law enforcement. When asked whether that had been a goal or intent of the campaign, the officer sputtered that it should not matter, committing the post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy—assuming that because one thing chronologically followed another, the first action caused the second. This way of thinking denied the command an accurate measure of how effective its information operations campaign actually was, replacing evidence with anecdote.

Far more seriously, in the January 2013 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette, a pair of articles described how a lack of critical thinking, particularly in planning and metric development, created perverse incentives. The first article, authored by 1stLt Matthew F. Cancian, focused on partnering with Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and described how a battalion measured the success of its partnered patrols by simply counting the number of patrols, assuming that more was better, without any regard for improvement in the ANSF or quality of the patrols.2 Written by LtCol Andrew J. McNulty, the second article focused on the effective allocation of money for development projects and noted that the goal of development spending had become spending itself, with success measured by how quickly money could be distributed, regardless of the benefits of any particular project.3

Most unforgivable is an inability or unwillingness to think critically during deliberate planning. During a MAW operational planning team meeting in support of an operations plan, the G–3 (operations) was given a decision brief, took a few seconds, and then contentedly declared that he’d split the difference between two distinct courses of action, and walked out. While this arguably was decisive leadership, it was at best a flippant approach to a complex operational problem. It was a terrifying glimpse of how cavalierly a Marine’s fate could be decided without even a gloss of critical thinking applied to the decisionmaking process.

Dr. David T. Fautua, chief of the Individual Training and Learning Division, J–7, Joint Staff, defines critical thinking as “the art and science of assessing your thinking, with the aim of improving it.”4 In MCDP 1, the importance of critical thinking is expressed frequently and most concisely when discussing decisionmaking:

A military decision is not merely a mathematical computation. Decision making requires both the situational awareness to recognize the essence of a given problem and the creative ability to devise a practical solution. These abilities are the products of experience, education, and intelligence.5

Predating the issuance of MCDP 1, Confucius similarly stated, “By three methods we learn wisdom: first, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is bitterest.6 Both MCDP 1 and Confucius refer to experience as a key component of the way people learn, think, and decide. The Marine Corps strongly values experience as a component of critical thinking, as seen by the value placed on time served in the Operating Forces and within an officer’s MOS. However, Confucius hints at the dangers that an overreliance on experience can bring. Experience without critical thinking often leads to the employment of solutions that worked in the past, but may not be valid in the present or the future. More insidiously, experience can be used as a proxy for the validity of differing views through the logical fallacy of “appeal to authority” and the spurious argument of “special pleading.”

MCDP 1 and Confucius’ respective references to education and reflection refer to the foundation and function of critical thinking. The right education provides the necessary foundation for reflective or critical thinking. Training and education are often used synonymously in discussions about critical thinking, but it is important to understand that they are quite different. For the purposes of this article, Thomas Ricks’ dictum that “training prepares you for the expected, education prepares you for the unexpected” best demonstrates the difference between training and education.

While imitation and intelligence are also contributors to critical thinking, they shall not be addressed in this article due to the generally low-level thinking required for imitation, and the controversy that attends any discussion of intelligence, particularly in how it is measured.

A major contributing factor that reduces the number of Marine officers capable and willing to engage in critical thinking is the overall poor quality of American higher education. A study by Professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa titled Academically Adrift revealed the following:

. . . 45% of four-year college students from the class of 2009 “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during their first two years of college, and 36% “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” at all over four years of college. Their grades weren’t suffering—students in the study had an aggregate 3.2 grade-point average—they just weren’t getting any smarter.7

Compounding the problem of poor academic preparation is the lack of an effective screening process for critical thinking skills. Currently, an applicant’s grade point average, major, school, and the school’s competitiveness ranking in Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges are all of the educational information provided to the board that determines who shall have the opportunity to try for a commission through Officer Candidates School. These criteria serve as a proxy for educational attainment, but they are poor proxies at best, and may actually be misleading. Grade inflation makes any comparison of grade point averages between and within schools impossible, but even more pernicious is the use of the Barron’s rankings.8

Barron’s itself states, “The Selector [its competitiveness rankings] is not a rating of colleges by academic standards or quality of education,” but a measure of how hard it is for a student to be accepted to the school.9 As one education researcher noted, “Rankings such as those generated by U.S. News & World Report or Barron’s tell us more about the reputations of those schools than about their ability to deliver a high-quality education.”10 Many diplomas, even from elite schools, more closely resemble a receipt for funds expended than a certification that the bearer possesses the foundational knowledge to engage in critical thinking.

The most frequently proposed solution to improve critical thinking among officers is to conduct instruction at The Basic School (TBS) on accession or through Marine Corps University–sponsored professional military education. While both venues develop and sharpen critical thinking skills, neither TBS nor Marine Corps University have the time or resources to build the academic foundation that should have been laid during undergraduate education.

Instead the Marine Corps should ensure that applicants selected to compete for a commission demonstrate the educational foundation needed for critical thinking. A preliminary step would be to discard Barron’s rankings and utilize the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s (ACTA’s) ranking structure in its place. The ACTA evaluates schools on the existence and academic rigor of their core curricula required for graduation. The ACTA concept is that “a well-crafted core curriculum is challenging, content-rich, and coherent—and it is something that is not necessarily gained by simply amassing 120 credit hours over eight semesters.”11 The subject requirements used by ACTA to evaluate curricula are composition, literature, foreign language, U.S. government or history, economics, natural or physical science, and mathematics. These standards are a better proxy for the education a student receives at a school than the whims of an admissions committee, and challenge the prevailing wisdom that the most competitive schools provide the best education.

School Barron’s Guide ACTA Grade
Harvard University Most Competitive D
University of California, Berkeley Most Competitive F
Thomas Aquinas College Highly Competitive A
United States Naval Most Competitive B
United States Military Academy Most Competitive A
University of Massachusetts, Amherst Very Competitive D
Thomas More College of Liberal Arts Competitive A
City University of New York Competitive A
Cornell University Most Competitive B
Vassar College Most Competitive F
University of North Very Competitive D
University of Science and Arts, Oklahoma Very Competitive A
Carnegie Melon University Most Competitive C

Table 1.

Table 1 is a comparison of the ACTA rankings with those provided by Barron’s for a small sample of schools. The former’s ranking system assigns an intuitive letter grade to schools, with an “A” assigned to those schools that most closely meet ACTA’s ideal core curriculum. Barron’s evaluates the difficulty of gaining acceptance to a school, with a ranking of “most competitive” being the hardest school for a prospective student to gain acceptance to. Barron’s rankings descend from there to “highly competitive,” “very competitive,” “competitive,” “less competitive,” and, finally, “noncompetitive.” As Table 1 shows, there is little correlation between Barron’s competitiveness and ACTA’s academic rigor rankings; prestigious schools to which it is difficult to secure admission have mixed grades, while many obscure schools do an excellent job of building a foundation for critical thinking.

A more labor-intensive but effective and equitable approach would be to ignore the school rankings altogether and require that all commissioning applicants, regardless of school or source, have completed specified coursework that builds their educational foundation. ACTA asserts that the aforementioned seven subjects build the requisite foundation for critical thinking. While some of their values can be debated, the writing and mathematics requirements are essential, as literacy and numeracy inarguably are parts of critical thinking.

Two commissioning sources already require specific coursework: the U.S. Naval Academy and Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps. The former requires coursework in a variety of topics ranging from engineering through the humanities, while the latter requires Marine-option midshipmen to accumulate 9 credit hours split between writing, foreign policy, and national security affairs.12 This requirement pales in comparison to Navy-option midshipmen, who are required to take the same classes as their Marine-option peers, in addition to a further 15 credit hours primarily split between calculus and physics. The Navy wisely makes use of civilian undergraduate institutions to not only provide a diploma for its new officers, but to educate them in areas the Navy believes are important.

There is no reason that the Marine Corps should not add courses to the existing requirements and extend those requirements to all applicants. To ensure they meet the Marine Corps’ requirements for rigor and are not merely the schools’ possibly watered-down requirements, course offerings at schools should be evaluated by the local Marine officer instructor or officer selection officer. Requiring as many courses as the Navy does would not impede a student from attaining a degree in the field of his choosing, but would build the educational foundation needed for critical thinking in commissioned service. While autodidacts certainly exist in the Marine Corps, insisting on baseline requirements for academic attainment is the most effective solution for increasing the number of officers prepared to think critically.

The Marine Corps alone cannot instill the education that is the foundation of critical thinking in Marine officers after commissioning. While it can be refined with experience over time, the foundation for critical thinking is either present at accession or is not. Officer recruiting should take advantage of the fact that the demand for commissions far outstrips the supply, enabling the Marine Corps to apply a new, more rigorous screening for critical thinking. Taking this route would enable us to assess, screen, and commission officers who possess the skills necessary to thrive in maneuver warfare, “a state of mind born of bold will, intellect, initiative, and ruthless opportunism.”13


1. Headquarters Marine Corps, Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 1, Warfighting, Washington, DC, 1997, p. 57.

2. Cancian, Matthew F., “Counterinsurgency as Cargo Cult,” Marine Corps Gazette, January 2013.

3. McNulty, Andrew J., “A Return to Instability,” Marine Corps Gazette, January 2013.

4. Fautua, David T., Chief, Individual Training and Learning Division, J–7, Joint Staff, Washington, DC, 20 March 2013.

5. MCDP 1, p. 85.

6. Quote from thinkexist.com, accessed 23 April 2013.

7. American Council of Trustees and Alumni, What Will They Learn: 2011–2012, Washington, DC, 2011, p. 2.

8. Vedder, Richard, “Where Higher Education Went Wrong: The Government Yoke,” accessed at reason.com on 22 March 2013.

9. Barron’s Educational Series, Profiles of American Colleges 2013, Hauppauge, NY, 2012, p. 251.

10. Schmidt, William, Nathan Borroughs, Lee Cogan, and Richard Houang, “Are College Rankings an Indicator of Quality Education?” The Free Library, Philadelphia, PA, 22 September 2011, accessed at www.thefreelibrary.com on 22 March 2013.

11. American Council of Trustees and Alumni, What Will They Learn, Washington, DC, 2009, p. 4.

12. Naval Service Training Command, Regulations for Officer Development (ROD) Programs, Great Lakes, IL, 26 October 2012, p. 4–11.

13. MCDP 1, p. 95.