By Tianyi Xin
In Defense of West Point: A Cadet Responds to Thomas Ricks
My fellow cadets at West Point, in moments of overwhelming stress and cynicism, often compare our “rockbound highland home” to prison. Like inmates, cadets are regularly deprived of a wide range of social freedoms that “normal college students” would see as constitutional rights—we are told when, what, and where to sleep, eat, and wear. Our campus is secured on all perimeters by gates and security guards and entry into and out of West Point is tightly regulated. Most of the time, West Point feels more like the Panopticon than it does Harvard Yard. Thomas E. Ricks of the Washington Post voiced the sentiments of many of my classmates (myself included) during periods of utter exhaustion and pessimism when he declared this weekend that “we should get rid of West Point.”
So why do my classmates and I still stand proudly in the Long Gray Line? Because we think it’s worth it.
West Point’s high standards of academic excellence are what initially attracted me and many of my classmates to apply. Though Mr. Ricks was correct in noting that most of West Point’s faculty lack doctorates, all of West Point’s teachers have earned advanced degrees. About half of our instructors are rotating active duty officers who bring more than just PhD’s to the classroom. Lessons about electromagnetic waves are interspersed with anecdotes from the battlefields of Iraq; my teachers bring to light the realities of war alongside abstract intellectual concepts. They are invested in us in ways that reach far beyond the report card; when we graduate with our heads full of knowledge that they have taught us, we walk into the larger fold of the Army that they are part of, and often serve on the same battlefields as lieutenants under their direct command.
Compared with the large, impersonal classes of many of undergraduate programs, West Point classes above 18 students require the Dean’s approval and cadets have the home phone numbers of most of our instructors, all of whom we are free to call for additional instruction. West Point has graduated 83 Rhodes Scholars, two American Presidents, and countless statesmen and scientists who have made great contributions to society past their active duty commitments. A century ago, Theodore Roosevelt declared that “no other educational institution in the land has contributed as many names as West Point has contributed to the honor roll of the nation’s greatest citizens” — and it is still true today.
I would challenge Mr. Ricks to sit in on one day of my classes here at West Point and walk away still convinced that my classmates and I are receiving a “community-college education.”
Mr. Ricks wants to dispose of West Point in order to trim the federal budget in response to the economic crisis. However, West Point is already downsizing; many of our academic departments and athletic programs have suffered significant cutbacks. Our Commandant recently announced future reductions in the size of the staff and faculty as well as the enrollment numbers here at West Point. But how much should we sacrifice? And will these cutbacks make America stronger, or weaker on the battlefield?
In these challenging times of conflict when the rules of warfare are constantly shifting, our Army needs officers equipped with the knowledge gained from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. West Point provides not only 20% of the Army’s 2nd Lieutenants, but also 60% of the officers with hard science degrees—degrees the Army desperately needs. The service academies alongside other commissioning sources—ROTC and OCS (Officer Candidate School from which Non-Commissioned Officers gain their commissions)—provide a diverse pool of problem solvers and decision makers to lead our Army.
Even more importantly, West Point has taught us the intangible things that refuse to fit neatly into statistical charts and balance sheets presented to Congress. Mr. Ricks cannot measure the value of the camaraderie gained by roughing through a 15-mile ruck march together one day and calculus homework the next; the sense of integrity engrained into our psyches through the Cadet Honor Code; and the ability to handle the rigors of day-to-day cadet life replete with academic, athletic, and military requirements. West Point immerses us in a demanding, high-stress military environment, and cadets internalize the values of perseverance, integrity, and selfless service among other principles so that they become almost second nature. No knock on ROTC, but West Point cadets don’t just attend military classes a few times a week and fall back into to regular civilian lives—we live and breathe military culture from Reveille to Taps (and often in the wee hours of the morning in between Taps and Reveille).
West Point and our sister academies represent far more than just service oriented undergraduate institutions. Our schools also serve important diplomatic functions that strengthen ties with foreign military forces. West Point hosts four year and semester long exchange programs for foreign cadets from Austria, Germany, Albania, Kenya, and many other countries. Last weekend, we hosted the 2009 Sandhurst Cup, a two-day military skills competition where West Point cadets competed against our foreign counterparts from Britain, Canada, Afghanistan and, for the first time, Chile.
In trying times like these when American blood is spilled on foreign soils in pursuit of lofty ideals such as democracy and freedom, we learn that some things simply don’t carry price tags. Though excess and wastefulness certainly aren’t the right answers, there are some things we should never surrender in the name of efficiency or cost-effectiveness. How is it that in a time when government is spending on programs, infrastructure, and bailouts at an ever-increasing rate, West Point is judged expendable?
West Point is a crucible that molds us into leaders of character. We cadets forfeit free time and sleep to endure pressures that most college students would never put up with because we know the payoff after graduation is something that can’t be calculated in dollars—a solid education that will prepare us to lead our nation’s sons and daughters into harm’s way. Douglas MacArthur once noted that “in war there is no substitute for victory.” In America there is no substitute for West Point.
Just ask the hero of Mr. Ricks’ most recent book — David Petraeus, class of 1974 West Point graduate.
Tianyi Xin is a cadet at West Point where she double majors in International Relations and Law. She will graduate in May 2011.
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