More Military Education Should Be Like the ‘Strategic Thinkers Program’

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I spent the last year teaching in an officers’ graduate education program that I did not design and, in the process, discovered just how good military education can be.

The program is the Secretary of Defense’s Strategic Thinker Program, or STP. Authorized by the Office of the Secretary of Defense in response to decades of dissatisfaction with professional military education—especially, its inability to produce strategists—the program was launched in 2019 by Daniel Marston, the accomplished military historian, strategist and educator. 

The program has four essential components: 1) intense, year-long, Oxford tutorial-style seminars that are part of 2) a civilian policy-focused education graduate program. The seminars inform 3) a pair of wargames that highlight the strategic challenges that belligerents face in wartime; and 4) the program’s culminating experiential learning experience: an international staff ride designed to make the academic discussions come to life. A closer look at these four components tells us about the untapped potential of military education.

Intensive seminars. Over the course of an academic year, students study the nature and character of war, national policy, and especially strategy in depth, width and context. The modified tutorial system means small seminars (maximum of 10 students), intensive reading (about 250 pages per seminar), graded written assignments for each seminar, routine oral presentations, and student-led discussions. Each seminar meets twice a week for four hours to wring out the myriad dimensions of the strategic issues being explored that day. The contact time might seem excessive, but it turns out that in a discussion-oriented class, it is just enough. 

Policy-oriented university. The strategic education program is embedded in a civilian graduate school with a policy focus. This allows students to take electives with civilian counterparts who share an interest in national security, and explore other academic interests in the process. 

The STP’s civilian home is Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. The relationship is strong and symbiotic. Both parties vetted each other before agreeing to the partnership, and both routinely reassess the relationship to ensure that STP courses complement the school’s broader curriculum and vice versa. To put it bluntly, STP is not another Defense Department executive education program generating revenue for the university while students get a bit of a break. 

Wargames and international staff ride. These offer the experiential learning essential to effective adult education. In the wargames, students grapple with the strategic, logistical and alliance challenges, as well as the fog and friction of conflict. The staff ride delves into the detail of a campaign that illuminates the depth, width and context of war in all of its fascinating and harrowing dimensions. This academic year, the students traveled to the Somme to study 1918’s “100 Days Offensive” from the perspective of three nations. The students ran each segment of the staff ride, having done research and preparation for months in advance. They left the Somme after an intense week, having forged a more personal connection with those who crafted the strategy, led at all levels, fought, and, in many cases, died during the offensive. 

The students’ roles in executing the staff ride highlights how essential they themselves are to the program’s success. An exquisitely designed and led program is only as good as its students. To enroll in the Strategic Thinkers Program, U.S. military officers must be accepted by both OSD and the School of Advanced International Studies. By submitting to a dual application process, students are consciously committing to a much more intense military education experience than their contemporaries before they ever set foot in a classroom. It also means they are accepting failure as an option: both the school and the program reserve the right to fail a student. However, that likelihood is small, since students accept upfront the heavy workload associated with successfully completing the program. Having watched the intellectual and professional growth of this year’s cohort, I can attest to how students embrace the work and focus on thriving throughout the program.

Lessons

As an observer, I would argue perhaps the greatest sign of success for the Strategic Thinkers Program is the expressed desire within OSD, the Joint Staff, and the services to hire its graduates. This program produces strategists who think about constantly about conflict and are always asking, “What’s next?” and “To what end?” 

The program’s rigor and subsequent success of its graduates suggest five essential points to consider when exploring reforms to existing PME programs (or, as with the Space Force, creating new ones). 

1. Create programs with a singular purpose. The Joint Chiefs of Staff Vision statement and the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff’s Officer Professional Military Education Policy should only be considered starting points. To thrive, PME programs must focus on the specific type of graduate they want to produce, and design the course of study accordingly. Absent that focus, PME administrators will continue to pitch programs at the intermediate and senior levels to the lowest-common student denominator. By contrast, STP is laser-focused on producing strategists who can staff generals and flag officers at various levels. 

2. Empower the program director. Along with a singular purpose, PME needs to devolve power to the program directors. Right now, with the responsibility for large student throughput, of necessity much authority for PME class design is centralized in the provosts, deans, and department chairs. This structure leaves little latitude to explore innovative educational concepts like STP. One cannot overstate the vital role of a dedicated program director, responsible for both faculty and students and empowered to innovate at the seminar level. As PME institutions strive to reinvent themselves, they might look for opportunities to devolve authority, and empower program directors to create more year-long seminars specifically designed to bring more rigor and focus to the students. Program directors, in return, must demonstrate how they are producing graduates to meet an important, service- or joint-identified need.

3. Understand the U.S. government-university relationship. PME programs embedded in civilian universities (or in the case of the Space Force, exploring such partnering) should pay close attention to what the university is bringing to the relationship. Is the university staking its reputation (to any extent) on the success or failure of the program, or is it more interested in making money off it? Do the number of military students in a particular program preclude most interactions with civilian peers? What type of degree is being granted? Who are the faculty? Before establishing a military education program at a civilian university, it is essential to know the answers to these and related questions are essential. Civilian higher education is going through its own post-COVID reckoning, and U.S. government funding is enticing. Both the U.S. government and the associated university should be equally invested in the success of a military education program.

4. The basics of graduate education remain critical. No matter where it is based, the core of a rigorous military education program should be small seminars, demanding assignments, routine oral and written assessments, and constant feedback. Neither advanced classroom technology nor affiliation with an elite university can compensate for a classical, critical-thinking approach to teaching strategy. Struggling to analyze, understand, and write about national and military strategies using primary and secondary sources remains one of the most powerful ways to improve critical thinking skills.

5. A program is only as good as its students. Finally, just as students are the key to STP’s success, so do they hold the key to rigorous PME. Students should have to apply for PME, just as they should have to apply for other selective military programs. Students should also be allowed to leave an educational program without paying a career penalty. In short, services need to think more seriously about who should attend professional education programs and why. This means that the services should forgo the longstanding, albeit informal practice, of considering PME as family time. If family time is needed, services should create specific sabbatical programs for that purpose. Under the current structure, they dilute the education and devalue the student at the same time.  

As a teacher and observer, I have found that the Strategic Thinkers Program stands out as the Defense Department’s most rigorous and rewarding military education program. If DOD can protect STP while using lessons gleaned from it to reform professional military education more broadly, PME schools might, at last, turn away from teaching to a minimal standard, and start offering the demanding education students deserve. With the Strategic Thinkers Program at least now a beacon exists for other PME institutions to follow.

Paula G. Thornhill is a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general. She is an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and is the author of Demystifying the American Military.





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