Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Teaching Law at West Point

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Teaching Law at West Point

Article excerpt


As the nature of military missions changes, both the law curriculum and the law faculty's teaching methods at the U.S. Military Academy must adapt to meet both the professional and academic needs of cadets. We have addressed the former by balancing the courses in the legal studies program according to their dominant academic or professional orientation, and the latter by introducing a "diversity" teaching method, adapted from a proposed approach to first-year law school instruction, to develop the critical thinking skills required of Army officers.


Law has been taught at the United States Military Academy at West Point for over 180 years. Like all academic disciplines at the Academy, its purpose is help achieve an overarching goal: "to enable its graduates to anticipate and to respond effectively to the uncertainties of a changing technological, social, political, and economic world" (Office of the Dean, n.d., 6). In the past decade, the academic curriculum, along with the physical and military components of the four-year education and training program at West Point, have changed significantly in order better to achieve this purpose. No longer required to follow an almost exclusively engineering curriculum, cadets must now balance their four-year course load equally between mathematics, sciences, and engineering courses on the one hand, and the humanities and social sciences on the other. More recently, besides the required thirty-one "core" courses that all cadets must take, cadets are now able to pursue academic majors, including (since 1999) law and legal studies.

A challenge faced by the Department of Law since then has been how best to design an undergraduate program and teach the subject of law to the roughly one thousand cadets each year who take the one core course in law--Constitutional and Military Law--and to the sixty cadets who choose each year to major in law. On the one hand, these cadets are college undergraduates. Most will not become lawyers, but an understanding of law and its role in the nation and the world, as well as the analytical and communication skills derived from the study of law, are important assets for leaders in any field, including military leaders. On the other hand, as future Army officers, cadets need the professional knowledge and skills necessary to perform the numerous legal tasks required of military officers. These include decision-making responsibility in areas such military justice, environmental law and regulations, labor law, government procurement, and international law.

The legal studies program must therefore address both the "academic" and the "professional" aspects of teaching law to cadets that are implicit in the Academy's overarching academic goal. As used here, the term "academic" refers to courses that have an orientation towards the theoretical understanding of law and its function in societies, while the term "professional" refers to courses that are oriented towards knowledge that is practically applicable to the military profession. Of course, the terms are relative; all law courses taught at West Point contain to some degree both an academic and a professional orientation.

This article explains how the Department seeks to meet this dual requirement. It first describes the Department's academic program, including courses and summer internships. It then examines the composition of the faculty and how legal subjects are taught to cadets. In both sections it identifies some problems and issues that must be addressed. It concludes that the Department's program design is intentionally structured to balance the academic and professional requirements of the academic goal, while adoption of a diversity model seems likely to improve the effectiveness of teaching the courses that comprise the program

The Academic Program in Law

The program in law consists of the core course taken by all cadets in their senior year (Constitutional and Military Law), and a major in law and legal studies consisting of ten courses. …

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