Military education, apparently,…

is to education as military music is to music, as the old joke about military justice goes.

When we don’t need to kill people (and I do not diss the military function of the military), our armed forces still create value for our society by modeling a code of honesty and personal honor, just like professional sports; people we can look up to and try to emulate, who do it the hard way and don’t cheat, and who know we all depend on each other and go out of their way to share credit for their accomplishments. Right?

Oops.  Poor Walsh is being savaged as a plagiarist, and I think there had better be something in the UCMJ that would support a court martial. But that isn’t even the big outrage in this story (HT member of a private listserv).  There’s no evidence in this story that Walsh’s behavior is typical or common; anything as big as the Army will have some number of cheats, liars, sexual abusers, and whatnot.  What we should be up in (figurative) arms about is what the story does indicate to be a convention: our government is operating a “college” that regards fifteen pages with no original thinking or insights as a master’s thesis.  I read and supervise these things in my day job: this is not a master’s thesis, nor an undergraduate thesis, and (close to) not a course term paper, and wouldn’t be any of those things if Walsh had actually written it.

Where is the accreditation committee for the Army War College? Where is Darrell Issa when we need him?

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

11 thoughts on “Military education, apparently,…”

  1. My secondhand impression is that advanced military degree candidates are very poorly supervised. I knew about that in a different context from the War College. I sure hope that advanced technical degrees (engineering, hard sciences etc.) are better, but the public isn't getting what they're paying for.

    Same Facts covered the sad state of Italian academia several years ago. This may not be as bad, but similar.

    1. It’s a sort of a, uh, Catch-22 here for Walsh and the military. If he was in the kind of condition (self-reported as heavily medicated, in therapy for PTSD, dealing with the suicide of a friend) that makes his infraction plausibly non-malicious (i.e. the kind where the professor says “go back and do it right” instead of “I’m referring this to our disciplinary authorities”) then he shouldn’t have been either on active duty or actively enrolled. But that would require an entirely different approach to military disability. And that, of course, on top of the social-promotion aspects.

  2. As a Montana voter, I'm just thrilled to see this come out 7 weeks after our contested primary. I wonder if there isn't a story within a story there as well.

  3. I am not sure that the comparison to an academic master's degree is right. Wouldn't the War College degrees be more comparable to a professional master's degree (MBA, JD, MD)? So far as I can tell, "original thought" isn't a requirement for whatever final papers are written in those fields–the requirement seems to be closer to "reasonable synthesis, clearly presented."

    1. I don't really agree with you. I admit to being relatively ignorant about what happens in an MBA program, but my impression agrees with your suggestion that it's almost entirely unlike a master's degree in the humanities or the sciences, with no serious requirement for extensive studies, original thought, or the writing of a thesis that is intended actually to be read. And an MD or a JD isn't even intended to be an academic degree.

      But: Walsh did a Master's in "Strategic Studies", not in "Military Administration". To qualify, he purported to write deep, researched thoughts on a relevant topic, just as one might for a Master's of the same name (or a closely similar name) from the International Studies department of a university. And yet, his thesis was a mere dozen pages reflecting no original research or thought, which hopefully would not suffice as a Master's thesis in an academic department regardless of the actual plagiarism.

      There is certainly a case to be made for the military training system to award post-graduate professional certifications, even degrees, that signify the recipient has qualified for entry into a program and has then satisfactorily completed the coursework, similar to the professional degrees you name. But this should not be made to look so very similar to an academic Master's – not even if the Business Schools continue to get away with it.

    2. My professional masters degree in architecture required a semester-long project designing a major building, in my case a convention center. Of course it was completely original (and of course completely derivative as architecture always is, being a reassemblage of well-known elements…columns, doors, windows, etc.). The one I teach in, in public policy, requires a semester-long "advanced policy analysis" for a client, that we limit to 70 pages. I occasionally teach the 9 semester-hour seminar in which students write these and I would (if Walsh had actually written it) regard his product as a good sketch a few weeks into an APA.

  4. Note that there is a follow-up article at The New York Times today purporting to be about questions being raised at the War College in response to Walsh's plagiarism (though the article is heavily padded with people talking about Walsh instead of about the school). It includes the following passage:

    former students vividly remembered the rigorous, intense procedures regarding academic integrity: classes fully dedicated to plagiarism guidelines; PowerPoint presentations outlining rules that were routinely passed around; students signing sheets acknowledging that they understood the guidelines, and that submitted work was all their own.

    This all sounds ridiculous and juvenile. These are adults, postgraduates, for heck's sake, and that is leaving aside any previous training about honor codes in the military. They shouldn't need their signature on a piece of paper to convince them not to commit academic fraud. A whole class (a whole class session, presumably, not a complete course) on plagiarism guidelines?

  5. Three general comments:

    (1) In my experience, the thesis requirement at the War Colleges is not substantially less than the master's thesis in non-terminal-degree programs at many lesser universities, such as a mid-level master's degree in, say, process engineering at a school with a few (not a lot) of PhD candidates and a lot of MS candidates… with most of the MS candidates in a night course attended while they're still working. This is not to say that's what it should be; it is what it is.

    (2) An answer to Professor O'Hare's question about the UCMJ comes in two parts:
    (a) The technical answer is that submitting plagiarized material in fulfillment of a stated graduation requirement from a professional military education school — whether that's an NCO at his/her first opportunity or a colonel at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces or a War College (there is one for each service plus the National, colocated with the ICAF in DC) — violates three punitive articles: Article 90 (violation of a lawful written order, since all PME has a "do not plagiarize" directive); Article 134 (conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline); and, for officers, Article 133 (conduct unbecoming an officer). That said, there's such a long tradition in the military of more-senior people taking full credit for subordinates' work that "mere plagiarism" probably doesn't reach the consciousness of most students as a problem.
    (b) The realistic answer is "ain't gonna be prosecuted due to cultural disjuncture." Thanks to the well-earned, bidirectional disdain between "traditional academia" and "military education", neither side really understands the other… or cares to… or, more to the point, will even dream of reforming itself in the face of any criticism by the other in that other's primary area of expertise. As specific examples, career military officers usually — and justifiably — have nothing but disdain for those who would prioritize or otherwise direct national security operations on the basis solely of getting a PhD in International Relations (or a similar field), while academics in the corresponding fields usually — and justifiably — have nothing but disdain for those who would direct long-term counterinsurgency efforts on the basis solely of military experience and in-house military-taught professional military education. (I purposely chose a particular sore spot for the recent past; right, Dr Rice and Gen Petraeus?)

    (3) Frankly, a large part of the problem is that the War Colleges end up having to teach things to military academy graduates that they should have learned as undergraduates, and would have learned as undergraduates in programs and at institutions intended to lead into graduate study. The probability is quite high that the fourteen-page-paper on a single subject authored by Wright was the longest single self-directed paper he had ever done… and the probability approaches 1 that his instructors had themselves the same experiences. Further, most military personnel are used to a fairly strict five- or six-page maximum limit on anything they write themselves; anything longer is a team effort. In short, this is a conflict of expectations as much as it is anything else.

    Put another way, the academic standards at the academies (and a disproportionate share of war-college attendees are ringbangers) are nowhere near as high as their reputation of the 1940s and 1950s would lead one to believe… and especially so in the humanities. As a military officer who had a "real education" as an undergraduate and earned my commission (and paid for college) through ROTC, I've long felt that the military academies outlived their usefulness in their current mission by the end of the Vietnam fiasco. But that would go against a couple hundred years of tradition, and therefore is a not a part of the conversation…

  6. Standards must really have slipped within the military's higher education system. When I attended the National Defense Intelligence College back in the mid-80s, this accredited graduate school (obviously much lower in prestige than the National War College) required, in addition to coursework for a Master's degree, either two 30-page scholarly papers or a full-blown thesis. I did the latter over the course of a year, although it was also a classified intelligence report of considerable length, the only difference being that I footnoted the hell out of it for the version I submitted to NDIC, which is not common practice for routine intelligence studies.

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