The current controversy regarding the teaching of critical race theory (CRT) in the United States military misses the mark about the value of a broad education that encourages critical thinking skills for our soldiers, sailors, airman, and Marines. Both General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Admiral Mike Gilday, Chief of Naval Operations, were recently embroiled in this debate when challenged about their support for teaching military members about CRT. Although their public defense of such practices displayed some tortured reasoning, having worked with both men I have no doubt that their intentions were noble.
The controversy was stoked further in recent weeks when Lynne Chandler Garcia, a professor of political science at the U.S. Air Force Academy, defended her own practice of teaching CRT to her cadet students. Professor Garcia stated, “As a professor of political science at the U.S. Air Force Academy, I teach critical race theories to our nation’s future military leaders because it is vital that cadets understand the history of the racism that has shaped both foreign and domestic policy.” I trust that Professor Garcia understands that there is a fundamental difference between a history “of” racism and a history “with” racism. More importantly, I hope that cadets can tell the difference and will challenge her if they disagree. Have we adequately armed them for that debate with a foundational understanding of American history and government? I am not so sure.
I was in Professor Garcia’s shoes myself 34 years ago when, like her, I was also a professor of Political Science at the Air Force Academy. On the first day of my American Government class, I would ask each of my students to tell me where they were from and why they were there. The first question was easy to answer. The second, not so much. Many said they were there because they wanted to fly. Others said that they had been encouraged to serve by a parent or relative who had served themselves. And, of course, many said simply that they wanted to serve their country. I then asked them what was the most important thing they had in common? As they look puzzled, I quickly intervened to answer it for them, “Each of you, on the same exact day, gave an oath to support and defend (with your lives) a document—the Constitution of the United States.” I then asked how many of them had actually read it? The response was underwhelming. I made it my mission to ensure they not only read every word but that they understood the document in its entirety. Without such an understanding of the Constitution, it was unreasonable to expect them to discern what may be an enemy to it, or to defend it with their lives.
Fast forward nearly three-plus decades and I am convinced that the education we provide our young people in basic American civics has not improved much. Over the years, the military education many of our service members have received once in the ranks has tilted toward technical competencies and social issues with a decreased emphasis on military history and tactics, geography, and geopolitics.
While serving as Under Secretary of the Navy, I commissioned the Education for Seapower (E4S) study to examine what could be done to arrest this trend in order to develop Sailors and Marines with a greater capacity for critical thinking in an era of increasing complexity and competition. The study found that it was important to build a naval education system that taught our Sailors and Marines “how to think” and not “what to think.” We must invest in this capacity with as great a sense of urgency as we invest in new weapons. It should include promoting a thorough understanding of the Constitution and our unique system of government.
Freely debating the value of competing political theories is fundamental to our system of government. It should be not be restricted. We are fortunate to still live in a society that protects that debate even within the military. However, there is clearly some danger in introducing political theories such as CRT to our young service members without context, and particularly if they are presented with the imprimatur of senior commanders. It draws the military into politics, and this is dangerous. Therefore, before promoting the study of such theories, we must first prepare our people in uniform to evaluate them on their merits and in relation to the Constitution they have pledged their lives to defend. Should they also understand the basic tenets of other current and extinct political theories? Perhaps, but that should not be a priority. Let’s first teach them “how to think” about such matters, starting with a deeper knowledge of the one thing they all have in common— rather than the many things that can tear them apart.
• Hon. Thomas B. Modly is an American businessman and former government official who served as acting United States Secretary of the Navy from November 24, 2019, to April 7, 2020.