Character and Composition Matter

In the month of August, both Forbes Magazine and US News & World Report ranked West Point as American’s Best College in each of their respective annual rankings.  The rank and follow-on accolades are tribute to a national treasure – the United States Military Academy.  There has been both praise and criticism of the methodology used to calculate this year’s results.  The primary criticism being that students of the federal military academies receive a free education, which allows them to graduate debt free in comparison to the majority of other university students.

Free it is not

While cadets of West Point graduate with no financial debt, calling the education free is not accurate.  All military academy graduates pay for their education by risking their lives in service to our country.  A significant number of its graduates, young and old, have made the ultimate sacrifice defending our freedom and that of other nations. As a nation at war, Americans have continued opportunity to reflect on what West Point has given our nation and our world in return for that “free” education.  That said, there are other attributes of the liberal education and leader development program West Point offers which merit a top rank.

A liberal arts curriculum

In “Our Compassless Colleges” an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal on Sept. 5, 2007, Peter Berkowitz described a liberal education as one that involves a general distribution of requirements.  He wrote, “usually this means that students must take a course or two of their choosing in the natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities, decorated perhaps with a dollop of fine arts, rudimentary foreign-language exposure, and the acquisition of basic writing and quantitative skills.  And all students must choose a major. But this veneer of structure provides students only superficial guidance. Or, rather, it reinforces the lesson that our universities have little of substance to say about the essential knowledge possessed by an educated person.”

An Ivy Perspective

Harvard University ‘s 2007 Task Force on General Education defined liberal arts as: “an education conducted in the spirit of free inquiry undertaken without concern for topical relevance or vocational utility.”  The end goal implied is to prepare a graduate for their post college life by increasing a graduates ability “to assess empirical claims, interpret cultural expression, and confront ethical dilemmas in their personal and professional lives.”   Berkowitz, a former Harvard faculty member in the department of government, states that “the requirements add up to a little more than an attractively packaged evasion of the university’s responsibility to provide a coherent core for undergraduate education.”

A Changing Dynamic

West Point has offered a model of a liberal arts education since the 1920’s, based on the reforms instituted by Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the wake of the United States expanding role in the world after the First World War, preparing its graduates to meet the demands of becoming commissioned officers and leaders of character in the United States Army and for our Nation.  West Point requires all of its graduates regardless of course of study or major—be it civil engineering, foreign language, philosophy, chemistry or literature to take courses in all other disciplines.  Its academic curriculum goal is “to ensure that graduates anticipate and respond effectively to the uncertainties of a changing technological, social, political, and economic world.”

It is a four-year crucible where students develop their intellectual, military, physical, social and spiritual skills in a moral and ethical environment guided by the Cadet Honor Code: “A cadet will not lie, cheat or steal, or tolerate those who do.”  Its holistic curriculum, grounded in this honor code, fosters a commitment to honorable living in which integrity is paramount.  It provides graduates a solid foundation to deal with the many challenges of leadership they face daily in an increasingly integrated world due to ever advancing technology, but clouded by political, economic and social differences of the nations of the world.

Berkowitz concluded:  “Citizens today are called on to analyze a formidable array of hard questions concerning war and peace, liberty and security, markets and morals, marriage and family, science and technology, poverty and public responsibility, and much more. No citizen can be expected to master all the issues. But liberal democracies count on more than a small minority acquiring the ability to reason responsibly about the many sides of these many-sided questions. For this reason, we must teach our universities to appreciate the aims of a liberal education. And we must impress upon our universities their obligation to pursue them responsibly.”

By-products of a liberal education

West Point continues to deliver on its obligation by not only giving our Nation leaders of character for the Army, but also future doctors, judges, teachers, business executives, mayors, members of Congress, and not-for-profit executive directors to name a few.  All of these professional endeavors require: adaptability, creativity, moral awareness, critical reasoning, clear thinking, and effective communication.  These are direct derivatives of the liberal arts education provided to West Point students.


In 1946, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, USMA Class of 1915, then Army Chief of Staff, wrote a letter to the then Superintendent of West Point, General Maxwell Taylor, USMA Class of 1922.  He stated, “West Point gives its graduates something that far transcends the techniques and knowledge involved in developing, training, and leading an Army.  It helps them build character.”  The rigorous academic and physical programs that continue to evolve at West Point have all contributed to building the character Eisenhower referred to more than half a century ago.

West Point’s building of reasoned, honest, and worldly leaders of character is the qualitative differentiator in this year’s rankings.


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