Teaching Humanities at West Point

Elizabeth D. Samet ’91 melds literature and leadership in her classes for the cadets.

Elizabeth D. Samet ’91, professor of English, United States Military AcademyPhotograph © Bachrach

When President Drew Faust visits the United States Military Academy at West Point today, she is scheduled to meet with an interdisciplinary colloquium of faculty and staff members who have been reading her acclaimed 2008 book, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (excerpted here). She will also deliver the inaugural Zengerle Family Lecture in the Arts and Humanities to the broader West Point community (she is expected to talk about the importance and role of humanistic study).

To those outside West Point, who associate it with training its students to lead soldiers in war—accompanied by a heavy dose of engineering and arduous physical conditioning—Faust’s talk might appear quixotic. But in fact, the academy’s core curriculum, described in its academic catalog, prescribes multiple courses in foreign language, history, philosophy, political science, and English composition and literature. The cadets pursue a concentration as well, and in a typical graduating class perhaps 20 to 25 choose to study literature. The department of English and philosophy (host for the lecture) has four dozen faculty members.

Among them is Elizabeth D. Samet ’91, a professor of English who has spent her career, after completing her doctorate at Yale, teaching literature at West Point. As planner for the day, Samet will accompany Faust and her party, and moderate her meeting with the reading group. Given Faust’s advocacy of the humanities, and her role as a leader—both interests among West Point’s faculty members and leadership, Samet characterized the day as “a nice meeting of two worlds that don’t often meet in that way.”

Since joining the faculty in 1997, Samet has written about the close relationships she has developed with many of those soon-to-be officers who have grappled with Homer and Shakespeare, majored in English, and written theses about Anne Sexton. Unlike her professor-teachers at Harvard, St. Andrews, and Yale, Samet has also received e-mails from former students describing what they are reading in the moments of tedium and tension between patrols in Baghdad, or alone on a desolate mountain in Afghanistan. The death of a colleague in an IED-exploded Humvee became emblematic, for her and for many soldiers, of the war in Iraq, much as World War II airmen resonated to Randall Jarrell’s blunt “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” (“When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”)

Educating Leaders

As she was engaged in the academic study of eighteenth-century British literature in graduate school, Samet said in a recent conversation during a visit to Greater Boston, she circuitously came across the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. She was fascinated both by his “deeply ambivalent” attitude toward his West Point experience and by the ways military culture engages fundamental social issues—justice and vengeance. In her book Willing Obedience: Citizens, Soldiers, and the Progress of Consent in America, 1776-1898 (2004), a scholarly analysis of how a liberty-loving citizenry came to terms with submitting to military authority, and how some of those citizens represented that submission in literature and oratory (Washington, Thoreau, Lincoln, Billy Budd), Samet credits her West Point experience, preceded by “explor[ing] intersections between fiction and military memoir at Yale with David Bromwich.” And so it was, in 1996, when the Modern Language Association posted an opening at West Point, Samet found herself interviewing for and being offered the job. Her work, she said, “took on a different direction.”

Both Harvard and West Point aim to educate “leaders.” But the University and the Academy go about fulfilling their mission, as they define it, in radically different ways. The cadets’ grueling required curriculum—shaped by what Samet calls its “biggest customer,” the army and, by extension, the American people, and complete with military leadership, constitutional and military law, and mastery of weapons and tactics—is, she says, “a different educational experience than the one I had.” She contrasts long, “luxurious” talks in the Kirkland House dining hall with the cadets’ 15-minute meals punctuated by announcements and upperclassmen’s demands on the plebes, leaving “no time for that kind of conversation.”

As she writes in No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America (2014):

[T]he most important difference between the student I was and the students I teach is that my students think they know exactly what it is they are preparing for. They crave this particular guarantee in a world in which most assurances are far more elusive. Whatever else they might be in life, the cadets who sit in my English class will almost certainly be second lieutenants, receiving their commissions in the U.S. Army on the very day of their graduation from West Point, bachelor’s degrees in hand. They cannot know exactly what this passage entails, but they know their title, rank, and duty position.…

As an undergraduate, I had aspirations and expectations, I envisioned possible paths and scenarios, but I couldn’t have drawn the map from there to here. I had none of the certainty that can limit an educational experience in ways large and small. After abandoning sometime during my freshman year in college a longstanding plan to become a physician, I no longer had a blueprint to consult. As I reflect on my own undergraduate experience, I realize the degree to which I depended on a criterion of engagement rather than one of utility. My attitude no doubt stemmed in part from my ignorance about what the future held, and it was only when I did not find a given subject particularly compelling that I started to complain of its irrelevance. My students might protest—or might be conditioned to feel they ought to protest—that they don’t have the luxury of adopting such an attitude because they know unequivocally what is and is not relevant to their future profession. But that kind of vocational sureness is illusory.

Pat C. Hoy II, who taught English at West Point and at Harvard from 1989 to 1993, described the differences in a way Samet recognizes from her own experience. In his essay, excerpted in Harvard Magazine as “Soldiers & Scholars,” he noted, “At West Point I spent a great deal of time trying to convince bright students that it was all right to be smart, that getting high on the play of the mind could be as exciting as teamwork and victory.” In contrast, Harvard admissions officers, he thought, would be most excited by an applicant’s “quirkiness, an intellectual passion—eccentric, understated—that would set each student apart, distinguishing one from the other,” because Harvard, driven by the fundamental work of creating knowledge, “clings unconsciously to destruction.”

Of West Point, sited above the Hudson River, Hoy wrote: this “citadel of traditional strength incites a passion for preservation and leans always toward the status quo,” with the “army’s sublime work…done in concert,” and so is necessarily unlike the “intoxicating freedom” cultivated along the Charles. “It is not the play of the mind that West Point cherishes, but the application of mind.” Culturally, “Harvard students learn little about mutual support from their elders. Those in positions of leadership seem to know almost nothing about enabling hierarchies. Because they have long been caught up and consumed in a world of their own idea-making, they have been denied a lasting return on communal investments. At West Point, from day one…[cadets] are always investing themselves in each other’s lives.”

Within the confines of this milieu for training military leaders, as it turns out, literature and the humanities can play an unusually important role.

Learning with Literature

In her introduction to Leadership: Essential Writings by Our Greatest Thinkers, a Norton anthology (2015), Samet, the editor, observes:

I work in an organization geared to crisis, but its most successful leaders deal with emergencies in the calmest possible way. Military culture, in which hierarchy is explicit, extremity often the norm, presents what might be thought of as an intensified version of dynamics that operate in a range of institutions, industries, and professions….I have talked with various audiences…about the ways in which literature can help to illuminate such phenomena and to foster the creative imagination, mental discipline, and improvisational skills essential for strategic leadership.

The inescapable backdrop for my thinking about leadership—and for this book—is the series of wars in which the United States has been engaged since almost the beginning of the twenty-first century. That enterprise at once crystallized and confused so many things a lot of people in uniform and out thought they understood about developing leaders. For me, it reaffirmed in any number of ways the great value literature offers to anyone serious about the project of taking responsibility for other people and the organizations of which they are a part, about helping them to realize their full potential, about leading them anywhere (sometimes into hazardous places), and about preparing them to endure the aftermath of any trial.

That can be harder work than teachers and students outside the service academies encounter. Samet’s West Point experience began at a time of relative peace, and was then transformed—as was so much else—by the attacks of 9/11 and the ensuing military actions that morphed from relatively limited engagements into what has become America’s longest war. Along the way, of course, the missions descended from a focused sense of unity and purpose through such disastrous miscarriages of command and control as Abu Ghraib: crises not only for the country, but also for its military. Samet, a civilian who teaches alongside officers, and whose students undergo experiences she will never share, has written about these transitions, and her teaching, in two unacademic, first-person books: Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point (2007), and No Man’s Land (mentioned above).

Their titles suggest their texture. The first is a reference to the syndrome now identified as post-traumatic stress disorder, experienced by many soldiers after exposure to intense, violent, and norm-challenging acts of war. The second, a bow toward the shattered Western Front during the trench warfare of World War I (the book appeared in 2014, that war’s centennial year), depicts soldiers’ experience of “commuting” to endless deployments in Afghanistan. It is a powerful metaphor for their in-between status, both at war and on the civilian home front, where routine greetings of “Thank you for your service” descend into pointless, meaningless ritual that pales against Samet’s dedication, in memoriam, to two cherished students who were killed in Afghanistan.

How does literature inform military training? “Skilled tacticians,” Samet writes in No Man’s Land, “cannot be assumed automatically to possess capacious visions. What seems to be most sorely lacking, at both the individual and the institutional levels, are imaginations bold enough to anticipate a future that may look nothing like the past or remarkably like some forgotten past.” Soldiers in training “become well versed in what the army calls Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures, or TTPs. The military excels at training competencies, at inculcating a specific set of moral values that guide practice, at instilling a particular kind of emotional and physical discipline. Yet its culutre can seem less interested in—perhaps even ill designed for—the project of developing habit of mind or intellect.”

But given the chaos and ambiguities of combat, of course, “The fundamental paradox of military preparation is that the more exhaustively and exclusively one prepares for a particular event, the more one unfits oneself for any other.” Accordingly, “how best to prepare soldiers for the inevitability of their own unpreparedness is a conundrum with which anyone responsible for their education must reckon.”

And reckon Samet does, with sensitive readings of the classic epics, of Ovid (a guide perhaps to the metamorphoses those second lieutenants will face), of Shakespeare, of Edith Wharton’s acute accounts of World War I France, of Tolstoy and Saint-Exupéry, and of Wilfred Owen and other poets of war. (In various contexts and courses, Samet also draws upon her seemingly endless command of film history, war-themed or not.) “When I read ancient epics with cadets or talk them over with my colleagues,” she writes, “we often find less truth and power in the rousing battle cries of Agamemnon and his fellow bloody-minded enthusiasts than in the disillusion of Achilles, the humanity of Hector, or the ambivalence of Aeneas.”

In encountering literature—reading, performing Shakespeare, writing their own Ovidian metamorphoses—Samet writes, cadets can encounter “atmospheres of productive discomfort,” refine “analytical skills and observation through practice at close reading,” and even “acquire a sophisticated sense of narrative.” The latter may be of special importance to volunteer soldiers returning to a nation unengaged with, and uncertain about, its military: Samet notes that Odysseus and Penelope could become reunited only when they could tell each other their stories—the very kind of narrative act that a tag line like “Thank you for your service,” after so many years of distant bloodshed, essentially precludes today.

A reader encounters vivid examples of the potential moral power of such teaching and learning from literature throughout Samet’s books. To take an example from Soldier’s Heart, she describes an early encounter with Colonel X, whose first words to her, during her first week at West Point, were, “Thursday, twelve hundred, squash courts.” The colonel is, she writes, “quite simply the toughest man I’ve ever met…because he has a more powerful sense of discipline, both mental and physical, than anyone I’ve known.” She continues:

Colonel X has the attribute Saint-Exupéry found among the mail pilots he flew with in the early, chancy days of aviation: “There is a quality which is nameless,” Saint-Exupéry writes in Wind, Sand and Stars. “It may be gravity, but the word does not satisfy me, for the quality I have in mind can be accompanied by the most cheerful gaiety. It is the quality of a carpenter face to face with his block of wood. He handles it, takes its measure. Far from treating it frivolously, he summons all his professional virtues to do it honor.” Saint-Exupéry met with this attribute in his friend Guillaumet, who survived a forced landing and a harrowing walk through the frozen Andes. If the quality can be given a name, perhaps it is “responsibility.”

Saint-Exupéry described his friend’s “moral greatness” as consisting in “his sense of responsibility. He knew that he was responsible for himself, for the mails, for the fulfillment of the hopes of comrades.” And of her early squash partner, Samet concludes, “A sense of ultimate responsibility was something that Colonel X also possessed. When I asked him, after he retired, what element of his life had changed the most, he replied: ‘That’s easy: I’m not responsible for other people any more.’”

Learning from Students

The many other merits of Samet’s work aside, her first-person accounts reveal her role as an educator to an unusual degree, and so bring to light that most humanistic of activities, the relationship between the teacher and the taught.

For example, she writes in No Man’s Land, “I have always found unpersuasive the ease with which Iago warps Othello, who is no insubstantial man, to his purposes.” But then, she notes, Othello’s life has been endless battles and “hair-breadth scapes,” the very life story which bewitches Desdemona. Voilà:

To my complaint about Othello’s gullibility with respect to “honest Iago,” several of my students had a ready response. For them, the answer was obvious: Iago and Othello had fought together. The trust welded by that battlefield history trumped all else, even the bond between husband and wife. I’m not sure this explanation is sufficient, but the vehemence with which the cadets endorsed it seemed a key to understanding their own attitudes toward loyalty, service, and hardship.

Far more gravely, from Soldier’s Heart: “These days the shadow of the battlefield experience bleeds through the language of literature all the time.” Samet and her students were discussing “Bullet in My Neck,” an essay by poet Gerald Stern about being shot. As her students prepared to write their own personal essays, she counseled them:

“Your essays don’t have to begin with a showstopper like that,” I suggested. “Most of us don’t have bullets in our necks, but if you do, that’s a great story.” As soon as I said it, I realized that the whole room had gone miles away, and my you-idiot voice told me that some of them might well be able to write that very essay one day. As I sustain the faith that I am equipping my students through the study of literature with the ability to read and interpret their world, one of the things  I have begun to suspect is that there is no preparation—not in the Bible, not in the Aeneid, not in Henry James—wholly adequate to some of the experiences they may well endure.

In the end, her students bring Samet herself to the fore. Soldier’s Heart draws toward its close with a passage recounting her response when a cadet challenges her, “Ma’am, it’s time you told us why you teach here,” given her civilian status. Is it because her father served in World War II? Yes, in part, she agreed. “Is it because of patriotism?”

Suspicious of patriotic chic, mindful of Samuel Johnson’s observation that it is the “scoundrel” who seeks “refuge” in self-aggrandizing boasts of patriotism, I was leery of this explanation as well.

“I like to think I’m arming you with something you may need,” I ventured, “something of value.” I hoped that we were becoming travelers of the sort Montaigne describes, wayfarers who visit “foreign lands” not “the way others do so (knowing how much longer and fatter Nero’s face is on some old ruin over there compared with his face on some comparable medallion) but mainly learning of the humours of those peoples and of their manners, and knocking off our corners by rubbing our brains against other people’s.” Whatever we were discovering in that room wasn’t tangible. It lacked the particular satisfaction of a well-built bridge or the marvelous utility of a well-aimed M-16, but one day whatever it was might help them in war, and one day it might help them come home.

I can’t be sure, of course. “Only fools,” Montaigne warned, “have made up their minds and are certain.” Make the student understand, Montaigne insisted, advocating the study of Plutarch and others, “that confessing an error which he discovers in his own argument even when he alone has noticed it is an act of justice and integrity, which are the main qualities he pursues; stubbornness and rancor are vulgar qualities, visible in common souls whereas to think again, to change one’s mind and to give up a bad case in the heat of the argument are rare qualities showing strength and wisdom.” I think I see this capacity in cadets …[who] strike me as the sorts of adventurers who, wherever they may find themselves, will be trying to discern people’s “humours” and “manners” rather than comparing notes on Nero’s nose. As I envision them in those “foreign lands” that Montaigne conjures, I find them not only courageous in confronting the physical dangers they will likely encounter but also unafraid to change their minds. There they’ll be knocking their metaphorical corners off and peering into the brains of others, just as we used to do in the corridors of Thayer Hall.

…Over the last several years, cadets have had to think a lot about their function, too. They know their lives may contain a share of necessary violence, even the possibility of death, but they have the courage to meet brutality with imagination as well as ammunition, with questions as well as convictions, with books or without. They have the wherewithal to resist the abstractions of sacrifice with the realities of leading soldiers in combat and in a peace that one day will come. And that kind of patriotism isn’t chic at all.

Updated March 25, 2016, 3 p.m. The text of President Faust's West Point address, titled “To Be ‘A Speaker of Words and a Doer of Deeds’: Literature and Leadership,” is now posted at her website. (The title quotes the Iliad, book 9, from the speech of Phoenix to Achilles, whom he helped to rear.)

Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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