WEST POINT, N.Y. – A military expert who called for the shuttering of government-owned military colleges fired up faculty and students to defend the virtues of a military immersion education.
Tom Ricks, an editor at Foreign Policy recently penned a column arguing that taxpayers bear the unnecessary burden of supporting the nation’s five military schools. In doing so Ricks touched on a centuries-old debate over the societal benefits of U.S. government-run military universities.
In an email interview, Ricks said he’s received “voluminous” responses to his piece.
“I’ve had hundreds of notes,” Ricks said over email last month. “Oddly, the private ones are much more positive ones than the public postings. Just yesterday a general took me aside and thanked me.”
Critics of the column say its lacks solid data to buttress his claim—given to him by an unnamed Army spokesman— that West Point graduates cost tax payers $300,000 per graduate while ROTC students cost just $130,000.
But that’s precisely Ricks’ point: government officials should commission a cost-benefit analysis to see if there is quantifiable justification for keeping military schools open.
At the United States Military Academy, commonly known as West Point, a spokesman said he was offended by Ricks’ suggestion that the school’s caliber is that of a community college, particularly in light of the fact that it is consistently ranked as one of the best colleges in the country by a standard set of widely-accepted metrics. He said West Point is in the top tier of schools producing Rhodes, Marshall and Hertz scholars.
“I think, unfortunately, it was a hatchet job,” said West Point spokesman Col. Bryan Hilferty. “Tom’s article was so poorly-researched. I mean there are some things that are clear, obvious balderdash in his article.”
Ricks responded to the criticism by pointing to analysis showing the rankings reflect opinion as much as fact.
Hilferty also said the article’s context—a package series of “Spring Cleaning” ideas—was simply meant to be provocative and has little potential for traction.
“It was designed for controversy,” Hilferty said.
Tianyi Xin, a West Point cadet who just completed her sophomore year, said there are many intangible benefits of a Military Academy education that go beyond a cost-benefit analysis.
“We’re fighting wars overseas, we’re spilling the blood of our nation’s sons and daughters for these grand ideals of freedom and democracy,” Xin said. “So when we’re pursuing something as grand as that, sometimes we shouldn’t have to quantify the worth of this.”
Ricks also argues that encouraging students to get a broader base of knowledge at a liberal arts, civilian school gives ROTC students better perspective than cadets at military schools.
Xin said the immersion element gives West Point grads greater insight into military life and makes it easier to acclimate to life in the Army.
“Our teachers, they’ll talk about physics or history, but they’ll also tie it in with what they’ve learned in the real Army,” Xin said. “Being around these people all the time, it just rubs off on you in ways that you don’t notice until you take a step back.”
Xin said Rick’s argument that some West Point grads have a sense of entitlement or aloofness is a valid one, but that school pride shouldn’t be construed as elitism.
“I’m sure kids from [Texas] A&M are proud of their alma mater, kids from a lot of other ROTC schools, I’m sure they’re proud of their alma mater as well,” Xin said. “But I think it’s good to have pride in your alama mater because it builds unity among us … There is a certain sense of elitism, but you need to be proud of where you come from.”
Kent Park, who graduated from West Point in 1999, said Rick’s argument is not a new one and that previous attempts to shutter the military academy have failed.
“It’s a cycle,” Park said. “It ebbs and flows in terms of how much interest there is, really, in whether they want to get rid of the military academies.”
Park, who just completed a master’s degree at the Harvard Kennedy School, said the schools are not in any real danger of closing.
“I think it would be unrealistic to get rid of West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy and still maintain the type of military that we want,” Park said.