Commitment to Liberal Education at the United States Air Force Academy

By Enger, Rolf C.; Jones, Steven K. et al. | Liberal Education, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Commitment to Liberal Education at the United States Air Force Academy


Enger, Rolf C., Jones, Steven K., Born, Dana H., Liberal Education


LOCATED JUST NORTH of Colorado Springs, Colorado, the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) is one of our nation's federally funded military service academies. With an enrollment of approximately 4,400 undergraduates, the academy offers an integrated four-year curriculum ot academics, athletics, leadership and character development, military training, and airmanship programs. Our mission is "to educate, train, and inspire men and women to become officers ot character motivated to lead the United States Air Force in service to our nation" (United States Air Force 2007).

The distinctive military mission of USAFA is clearly evident throughout the academy. For example, prior to the beginning of classes, our incoming cadets experience an intense six-week period of basic cadet training meant to introduce these new students to the military culture and the high standards of performance we expect. Once the academic year begins, cadets live in cadet squadrons that are modeled after the kinds of organizational units they will work in upon entrance to active duty. Even their academic classes reflect our military culture, as cadets wear uniforms, come to attention at the beginning of each session, and liberally sprinkle the words "sir" and "ma'am" into dieir discussions.

The reasons for the overt military culture are fairly clear. With rare exception, all our cadets will be commissioned as air force second lieutenants when they graduate. They are required to serve on active duty for at least five years after graduation, and many of them serve substantially longer. In fact, Air Force Academy graduates currently make up a sizeable percentage of the air force senior leadership, both at the academy and in the air force as a whole. Graduates of the Air Force Academy play important roles in the future of the United States Air Force.

This description highlights some obviously distinct characteristics of Air Force Academy graduates. For the purposes of this article, the most salient of these is that 100 percent of our students are guaranteed full-time employment - not just in a job, but in a profession - upon graduation. Furthermore, we know their future employer. What this means is that it is relatively easy for us, as an institution, to receive feedback regarding the preparedness of our graduates from our graduates themselves and their supervisors. It is also common for us to receive guidance from the cadets' employer (i.e., the United States Air Force) about any new capabilities that our future graduates need to possess.

Despite these distinctive characteristics, however, the Air Force Academy faces many of the same challenges that confront more traditional colleges and universities. The demands placed on our twenty-first-century military are nothing short of extraordinary, and officers are being asked to do things now that would have once been considered unimaginable. As recently as twenty-five years ago, America was involved in the cold war, and the focus of the American military was on defending our country from the Soviet Union. Today, the Soviet Union no longer exists, and the American military is fighting a very different kind of war in the Middle East and throughout die world. Even our most junior air force officers are asked to succeed in the face of great complexity, to operate without senior leader oversight, to identify hurdles and ways to overcome them, to perceive and adapt to the perspectives of others, and to take on tasks for which they have not been trained (Thomas 2005). To succeed in these conditions, they need to prepare in many of the same ways as their civilian counterparts at colleges and universities across the country. In short, air force officers need the broad-based knowledge, the intellectual skills, and the personal and professional responsibilities that are hallmarks of a liberal education.

A tradition of liberal education

A comprehensive liberal education has been the cornerstone of the United States Air Force Academy's curriculum from its inception. …

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