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Language, Cultural Studies Gain More Focus at Service Academies

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 25, 2007 – Gen. George Washington would probably roll over in his grave if he knew the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. -- the school he advocated to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign military expertise -- is increasingly sending its cadets overseas to learn with and from their foreign counterparts.

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A cadet at the U.S. Air Force Academy undergoes a blackboard exercise in Chinese. All three U.S. military academies are putting new emphasis on language and regional studies coursework to help their graduates as they deploy around the world. Courtesy photo

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Times have changed since Washington led the charge for academic institutions that would free American forces from foreign dependence.

Today, some 185 years after West Point became the first of three U.S. military academies, followed by the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., all three schools are thinking globally in the way they educate future officers.

Engineering and hard sciences, historically mainstays at the academies, remain a big part of their curricula. Sixty percent of Naval Academy midshipmen, 54 percent of Air Force Academy cadets, and 45 percent of West Point cadets major in technical studies.

But ever-increasing numbers of cadets and midshipmen are studying and majoring in humanities and social sciences, with a growing emphasis being put on regional studies and language instruction.

The goal, academy officials said, is to ensure graduates have not only a solid technical foundation critical to military operations, but also other skills they’ll need to enter a wartime force deployed around the world.

“We want all our graduates to have a technical foundation, and a leadership and ethical foundation. That hasn’t changed,” said William Miller, academic dean and provost at the Naval Academy.

“What’s changed has been an increasing realization that there is a third leg of this stool that we haven’t emphasized enough,” he said. “And that is giving all of our graduates a foundation of understanding about the history and culture and civilizations and governments and religions of the areas in which they are going to serve.”

Army Col. Dan Ragsdale, vice dean at West Point, said regional studies and language training in the curriculum help develop critical thinkers able to look at the issues they will confront as military officers through a wide-angle lens.

“The kinds of problems that our … graduates will face are across a broad spectrum, so we have to give them a technological foundation,” he said. “But we also have to give them a social and cultural perspective around which to address and solve problems. We have to help them understand and appreciate the political aspects of any problem they are trying to address.”

It also gives newly commissioned graduates the skills they will need as they work shoulder to shoulder with coalition partners and allies around the world, noted Gunter Mueller, head of the Air Force Academy’s foreign language department.

“We are increasingly a part of coalition forces, no matter where we go and where we operate,” Mueller said. “And the better one understands the elements of those coalitions, the more effective one can be. In fact, it’s critical that we understand other cultures, other languages, other regions of the world in order to work effectively in those coalitions.”

As the largest service with the biggest footprint around the world, the Army is leading the global trend. Ten to 15 percent of cadets in every West Point class major in one of seven languages: Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Arabic, Chinese and Russian, Ragsdale said.

All West Pointers, regardless of their major, must take at least two semesters of a foreign language, he said. Beginning with the class of 2010, cadets with non-technical majors must take four semesters of language training.

The Naval Academy introduced two language majors, in Chinese and Arabic, this year. Although only 16 midshipmen currently are enrolled, Miller expects that number to grow.

All midshipmen with non-technical majors must take four semesters of language training, he said. Those with technical majors currently have no language requirement, but many select language courses as electives.

Miller said he hopes to add a foreign area studies major to the Naval Academy’s curriculum. Currently, the political science program offers an international studies track that addresses various areas of the world, including their languages, cultures, governments and histories, he said.

At the Air Force Academy, humanities and social science majors must take two full years of training in one of seven languages—a number to increase to eight next year, reported Brig. Gen. Dana Born, dean of faculty. In a new change, incoming cadets who major in technical and science will be required to study at least one year of language training, she said.

The foreign area studies major is relatively new at the academy, with just 49 members of this year’s graduating class earning degrees in this area. But Born said the trend lines are positive, with 80 cadets from the 2009 class already declaring foreign area studies majors.

Educating future officers in regional and language studies doesn’t stop at the classroom door. All three academies have large and growing programs that give students the chance to participate in cultural and language immersion programs. These range from short-term orientation visits to full semesters abroad at foreign military academies or civilian universities.

That’s a sea change from when Miller graduated from the Naval Academy in 1962, “back in the age of sail.”

“When I went through here, we all expected to spend eight semesters on the shores of the Severn (River),” he said. “And now it’s becoming more common for some select few who are still going to graduate in four years to spend seven semesters here and a semester abroad.”

Born, a 1983 Air Force Academy graduate, was one of the earlier participants in a four-week language immersion program in Spain and remembers its benefits. “I had taken several years of Spanish and thought I was fluent until I got into my first conversation on the ground,” she said. “But when I came back after having spoken only Spanish for four weeks, I was dreaming in Spanish and the first word to come to my mind was Spanish. It really taught me the value of how important not only taking a language is, but also having to use that language to communicate.”

Cultural and language opportunities have expanded greatly since Born’s experience, and now include countries beyond Western Europe.

This year, for example, the Military Academy sent 86 cadets for semesters abroad in 10 different countries. Next year, Ragsdale said about 140 cadets will spend semesters abroad in about a dozen countries.

In addition, about 190 West Point cadets participated this year in the academy’s Foreign Academy Exchange Program and other seven- to 10-day spring immersion programs in more than 40 countries. This summer, another 390 cadets are signed on to participate in three-week summer immersion programs in 43 countries.

“We’re looking at different ways of providing experiences for cadets that will enhance their cultural awareness, their regional expertise and their language proficiency,” Ragsdale said.

The other academies are following West Point’s lead. About 165 Naval Academy midshipmen participated in some type of language and cultural immersion program in 15 countries this year. Ten spent semesters abroad at foreign military academies in five countries.

The Air Force Academy sent 592 cadets for overseas training that ranged from a brief visit to a foreign academy to a five-month semester abroad. That’s up from 132 cadets last year, and is nudging toward 700, where Born expects it to eventually level off.

Army Gen. John Abizaid, a 1973 West Point graduate who recently retired as commander of U.S. Central Command, said he’s a big supporter of the academies’ efforts to bring more regional and language training to their programs.

As cadets and midshipmen graduate and serve as military officers around the world, particularly in areas like Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s critical that they understand the cultures in which they’re operating, he said.

“The cultural gap in this particular conflict that we are faced with today is a problem that we have all got to recognize, understand and then adjust to,” he said. “So much of the problem that we are facing in the Middle East is a cultural gap that can be closed by earlier education in an officer’s career.”

Contact Author

Retired Gen. John Abizaid, USA
Brig. Gen. Dana Born, USAF

Related Sites:
U.S. Military Academy
U.S. Naval Academy
U.S. Air Force Academy

Click photo for screen-resolution imageCadets at the U.S. Military Academy study an intensive curriculum heavy in engineering and hard sciences, but humanities and regional studies are receiving strong emphasis as well to ensure students receive a broad, well-rounded education. Courtesy photo   
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