Evolution of an Institution

Article excerpt

Evolution of an Institution

Carved from Granite: West Point Since 1902. Lance Betros. Texas A&M University Press. 458 pages; black-andwhite photographs; index; appendices; notes; $40. Publisher's website: www. tamupress.com.

The United States Military Academy is a national treasure that holds a special place in the hearts of many graduates and non-graduates alike. I lundreds of books examine West Point from any number of angles or aspects. Lance Betros has added to that list with Carved from Granite: West Point Since 1902, but in a very different way than most previous works. This is not a coffee table book, and it is not a book cheer leading for West Point. It is an indepth thematic study and a well-researched history with more than 100 pages of endnotes. Most important, Betros uses historical analysis to recommend changes necessary for West Point if it is to maintain its prestigious position. In doing so, he frankly addresses a full range of historical and contemporary issues, and he does not gloss over the rough spots. His thesis is that despite common beliefs to the contrary, change, not continuity, best characterizes West Point since 1902.

Each of the first seven chapters focuses on a specific theme: governance, admissions, academics, military training, physical program, leader development and character building. Each chapter follows a similar format, starting with the status of the situation as it existed in 1902 and then tracing changes to the present. Occasional redundancies may seem distracting, but they actually work well by increasing emphasis on certain topics.

The examination of governance boils down to the struggle between the academic board, composed of long-serving academic department heads (including Betros, chair of the history department), superintendents and a rotating general officer. This conflict ebbed and flowed until 1977, after both the Borman Commission and the West Point Study Group recommended a stronger role for the superintendent and making the academic board advisory. Betros advocates for a more cooperative role between the academic board and the superintendent as the only way to succeed. Some discussion of the requirement for superintendents to retire from the Army after a fiveyear term would have added significantly to the analysis. While intended to remove the pressure of bucking for promotion or future assignment from the decision-making process, this move may have also degraded the relevance of superintendents within the larger Army.

Over the years, admission to the academy shifted from a patently political system in 1902 to the whole candidate approach used today. Betros critiques the current policies of admitting underqualified athletes and underrepresented minority groups. Despite strong empirical evidence, the analysis lacks a stronger explanation of the distinction between "fully qualified" and "best qualified." For example, a class composed of the 1,200 best-qualified applicants would lack more than just minorities and athletes. It would also lack a national character because such a system would skew towards admitting more cadets from larger and betterquality school systems. The present system ensures the desired national representation.

A graduate of just 40 years ago would not recognize the vastly different academic program that current cadets experience. Similarities exist, but the overall structure of the program and choices left to the cadets in terms of academic majors and électives make a much stronger program, tailored to cadets' interests and aptitudes. …