When I entered the United States Military Academy at West Point in the summer of 1986, the mission of the school was to create leaders for “a lifetime of service to the nation.” I’d committed to 4 years of West Point and 5 more years after in service as an officer in the US Army. When I graduated with my degree—a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering and English literature with most of a minor in Brazilian Portuguese)—I’d been through one of the most intensive and integrated liberal educations on the planet. It’s been one of the bedrock experiences informing my work as a leader and a leadership coach.
Founded in 1802, West Point brought a crucially needed resource to nation’s young Army through a classically liberal education: technical leadership in the officer corps. The technical portion then meant things like ballistics for canons, engineering in the construction of forts. Over the years, it’s evolved to include understanding rapidly developing changes in engines and the internet.
But the leadership portion meant at least as much as the technical—and it meant understanding soldiers, and societies, and ethics, what is it like to inspire others and hold them accountable, among other things. It’s one thing to know how, technically, to complete a mission to build or secure a bridge; it’s quite another thing to lead the teams of men and women who will do so, sometimes at the risk of their lives.
The classical conception of a liberal education supports the student’s ability to think, to connect ideas and issues, to engage effectively in the broad stage that is life. It is not merely the lessons of mathematics and science, or arts and literature, though it includes them. It’s not multiplication tables or calculus, not the knowledge of foreign language or the scanning of a Shakespearian sonnet. It’s the sum and application of these things to living life more fully. What does the word saudades in Brazilian Portuguese bring to understanding American life? What makes a poem inspire? When does it help or harm to give advice?