How A Liberal Arts Degree Made Me A Better Officer

Education
“A liberal education ... frees a man from the prison-house of his class, race, time, place, background, family, and even his nation.” ---Robert Maynard Hutchins, The Political Animal

As a university student who pursued a liberal arts degree, I am frequently asked, “Well, what do you do with a liberal arts degree in history? Go to law school? Teach?”


I have even been asked this question in the wardroom (naval officers’ mess) while sipping a cup of coffee with my name, rank, and warfare pin emblazoned on the mug. Clearly, I became neither a lawyer nor a teacher.

The question is based on the opinion that a degree should showcase useful professional skills — for example, pre-law or pre-med rather than political science or biology. Yet this point of view fails to consider that the interdisciplinary nature of a liberal arts degree is practical in itself.

A liberal arts education teaches critical thinking and written expression: a student of the liberal arts never learns what to think, but how to think. As a military officer frequently faced with chaos and questions that may have two wrong answers, my liberal education taught me how to make sense of paradox, to strive to understand the way the other side thinks in an operational environment, in my personal life, and even well before my military service.

At 15, I was a mediocre Classics student, doodling in the pages of my textbook without focus, sitting in the back of my ninth-grade Latin class. My classmates and I were trying to comprehend that the United States had been attacked, and we were now a nation at war. On a day when sirens persistently blared outside our classroom’s only window racing to rubble, my Latin teacher completed the lesson and then paused. He reminded the handful of us who had not gone home to be with our families to “seek knowledge.”

With that directive, that teacher imparted the invaluable lesson that ignorance was the most potent adversary.

Related: 4 nanodegree programs that will help you land a job without going to college.

At 18, I was in my first term of college, studying Plato’s Republic with all my fellow new students. Like many students before me, the Allegory of the Cave struck me: we are all in the darkness of the cave of ignorance. It is only through asking questions that we can emerge to the light, our mission for the next four years.

When I was 22, I completed bachelor’s thesis. As it came time to pursue careers, my choice to enter the Navy perplexed some. It was not the first time I considered military service, but it was only at this time that I felt confident that I was making the right decision. My view of the world was highly influenced by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, a voice of the early feminist movement, who wrote, “To attain happiness in another world we need only to believe something, while to secure it in this world we must do something.”

My decision to take the oath was largely predicated on the realization that I have always had a call to serve, that it was finally time to take action.

I turned 27 on my third deployment, and lived in an alien culture that I am still trying to make sense of. In school, we were required to master a foreign language not only as a practical skill, but also as a means to try on and embrace a different culture. On this deployment, although I disagreed with much that happened around me, I tried to understand the rationale of those who live there: how does it make sense to them? Some completely scoffed at it and rejected the paradoxes, building a wall within themselves against it. It was not my job to judge; it was not about me. I had my own cultural and cognitive biases about them, just as the locals do about me. I decided it was best to reduce my own ignorance. Perhaps it would help reduce theirs.

As an operational planner, I have participated in countless meetings where we ordered with the cliché to “think outside the box.” Most of my colleagues have STEM degrees, and follow a scientific process to formulate their solutions; they can answer four of the “five w’s” with that process: who, what, where, when. However, the question answered by a core liberal arts education is why.

I struggled to learn how an engineering plant worked, but excelled at understanding the context and impact of our missions. As a leader, my rigorous academic training has strongly impacted my leadership style: I choose not to be a distant, calculating Machiavellian leader, but rather answer Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s question, “What wisdom can you find that is greater than kindness?” Asking “Why?” has enabled me to understand the motivations of my subordinates.

Home from deployment, I have slowly started to prepare to transition to civilian life. I will likely willingly deploy again before that time, but I am delighted at the prospect of being a full-time student again. When asked why I desired to pursue a two-year, in-residence graduate degree rather than an accelerated program, night school, or correspondence course, the answer for me was simple: I want to take the time to fully pursue ideas before applying them, as I have over the last five years, to the dynamic challenges of real-world events.

So what are you going to do with that liberal arts degree?

Seek knowledge.

Photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kevin S. O'Brien
Jeff Schogol

Navy Secretary Richard Spencer took the reins at the Pentagon on Monday, becoming the third acting defense secretary since January.

Spencer is expected to temporarily lead the Pentagon while the Senate considers Army Secretary Mark Esper's nomination to succeed James Mattis as defense secretary. The Senate officially received Esper's nomination on Monday.

Read More Show Less

U.S. Special Operations Command may be on the verge of making the dream of flying infantry soldiers a reality, but the French may very well beat them to it.

On Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron shared an unusual video showing a man on a flying platform — widely characterized as a "hoverboard" — maneuvering through the skies above the Bastille Day celebrations in Paris armed with what appears to be a dummy firearm.

The video was accompanied with a simple message of "Fier de notre armée, moderne et innovante," which translates to "proud of our army, modern and innovative," suggesting that the French Armed Forces may be eyeing the unusual vehicle for potential military applications.

Read More Show Less
(New Jersey National Guard photo by Mark C. Olsen)

If you've ever wondered if the Pentagon has ever exposed the American public to ticks infected with biological weapons, you're not alone.

Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) authored an amendment to the House version of the Fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act would require the Defense Department Inspector General's Office to find out if the U.S. military experimented with using ticks and other insects as biological weapons between 1950 and 1975.

If such experiments took place, the amendment would require the inspector general's office to tell lawmakers if any of the ticks or other bugs "were released outside of any laboratory by accident or experiment design."

Read More Show Less

There's no one path to military service. For some, it's a lifelong goal, for others, it's a choice made in an instant.

For 27-year-old Marine Pvt. Atiqullah Assadi, who graduated from Marine Corps bootcamp on July 12, the decision to enlist was the culmination of a journey that began when he and his family were forced to flee their home in Afghanistan.

Read More Show Less
(Facebook photo)

The Air Force has administratively separated the Nellis Air Force Base sergeant who was investigated for making racist comments about her subordinates in a video that went viral last year, Task & Purpose has learned.

Read More Show Less