An education in honor

To be on the campus at West Point is to experience a kind of culture shock—at least if you have experience of other American colleges. Obviously, I’m not referring to the stunning view of the Hudson River from Trophy Point or even to the fact that the verdant hills in and around the campus disguise ranges for artillery training and venues for war games. What makes the Academy so remarkable is the bearing and attitude of its students. It is tempting to suggest that they shine in comparison to the generality of college students because they are America’s best and brightest. Well, I’m uncertain how one defines “best” with regard to seventeen-to-twenty-seven-year-old men and women, but it is fairly certain that the Academy’s cadets are measurably—by standardized tests anyway—not the “brightest.” Admission standards at all the academies (Naval, Air Force, Coast Guard, as well as USMA) are demanding—in addition to the usual competitive academic exams there are also physical tests—but the “brightest,” at least as measured by SAT scores, mostly end up at the “elite” col- leges: the Ivies and the Seven Sisters, the big research universities, and the chic liberal arts colleges. What the academies get is a group of highly motivated, academically excellent, morally upright young people who will either blossom or shrivel under the discipline and rigor of the program.

It may be argued that the success of those cadets who do thrive under conditions that would make the average college kid whine, swoon, and skedaddle simply reflects the “self-selection” inherent in the Academy’s admissions process. There is much truth in this, just as it’s true that the success of Harvard students has as much (or more) to do with native intelligence and competitiveness as with the school’s curricula and pedagogy. Still, West Point’s diverse cadet corps is universally enthusiastic, gracious, and robust, both physically and intellectually. I’m convinced this is not just self-selection but is also a consequence of the Academy’s standards (and this is true of the other service academies as well), which with regard to honor are higher than at any other American educational institutions.

Now, that could be damning with faint praise, but it isn’t. Outside Washington Hall, the massive cadet mess hall where all four thousand cadets can be served their meals in under half an hour, there is a marble slab inscribed with the Academy’s honor code: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” Those are a dozen words to live by. This conception of honor may seem to be closer in spirit to that of the Victorian gentleman than that of the medieval knight, since it does not explicitly embrace prowess or loyalty or liberality or courtesy. But we need to recall that franchise was the knight’s signal virtue; that it meant not only honesty or frankness but also honor, defined as nobility of mind. The honor code at West Point is a seed that will root and grow in the cadet’s mind to—it is hoped—perennially flower in his or her life. I admire James H. Toner’s definition of character (he’s Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College), which is essentially the same as franchise or honor: “Most of us struggle to know the right and then to do it. There, then, is the property of character: one has character who struggles (perhaps not always successfully) to do what should be done.” – from The Compleat Gentleman

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