Why We’re Launching a Review of Naval Education

The USNA coat-of-arms on the entrance gates to the US Naval Academy in downtown Annapolis on October 21, 2012 in Annapolis, Maryland.

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The USNA coat-of-arms on the entrance gates to the US Naval Academy in downtown Annapolis on October 21, 2012 in Annapolis, Maryland.

Learning is the key to an agile force that can meet the challenges we see coming — and those we don’t.

The United States has no preordained right to victory, as Defense Secretary James Mattis reminds us in the 2018 National Defense Strategy. In an age of renewed, yet different great-power competition, we must be prepared for the challenges we see coming — but more importantly, for those we don’t.

Any success we may enjoy in the future will be enabled by an ever-more-agile force – led by agile people who thirst for knowledge and who are adept at thinking, learning, and processing information quickly. The development of such a force does not happen by accident. It must be constantly cultivated through a renewed emphasis on education, and the deliberate construction of a learning culture across the entire naval service.

Because if we’ve learned anything in over 200 years of our nation’s maritime history, it’s that continuous learning is essential to sea power and victory. Finding a winning edge is not just about always thinking — but thinking differently, and inspiring innovative minds to break the mold of traditional paradigms. Recalling our nation’s proud history of naval service, it’s clear that whomever learned fastest was likely to win in any phase of conflict, to include the most critical phase: the one that precedes and diffuses conflict through effective deterrence.

Today, through a combination of technology and a deeper understanding of what drives human talent, we are on the cusp of a new revolution in education, one that will rival the dawn of the atomic age in terms of its pervasive impact on our society, economy and national defense. The United States Navy and Marine Corps must participate in this revolution if they are to remain relevant in the unpredictable and rapidly changing geostrategic environment we anticipate for the future. In so doing, we must take a hard look at the Navy and Marine Corps’ approaches to education to ensure they have not slipped into a state of complacency, and if necessary, adjust urgently to a new path that produces agile minds well-suited for defending our strategic interests in this century and beyond.

Although we are increasingly less able to predict the future, we must cultivate people who can learn and adjust to this unpredictability quickly. Today, learning is an agile skill in itself, one iteratively developed and assisted by modern tools like gaming and artificial intelligence. Learning no longer requires merely a necessity to “suffer,” as an ancient Greek playwright famously asserted, but rather it presents an opportunity for time-defying excitement. The traditional construct of concentrated learning in one’s early years, from age 6 to 26, and then reaping rewards later may be antiquated in a world of increasing speed and multiple dimensions. The world that is emerging today is one in which continuous expansion of thought and capacity is necessary to achieve a competitive advantage — in whatever arena one may choose to engage and excel, but especially in the naval service.

For these reasons, Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer and I are commissioning the Department of the Navy “Education for Seapower” Study—a clean-sheet review of naval learning. This study will focus on our flagship institutions like the U.S. Naval Academy, Naval Postgraduate School, and our Naval and Marine War Colleges, along with a fresh look at our relationships with civilian academic institutions and corporate learning structures – both extant and possible. These venerable institutions have served well in the seas and shores of conflict for long decades, and more recently, are taking learning to new dimensions like cyberspace and electromagnetic strata. But how they inspire creativity and agility in the human dimension is even more important, leveraging our nation’s greatest natural resource – our people. As John Paul Jones said, “Men mean more than guns in the rating of a ship.” For the naval service of this century and beyond, we must apply Jones’ principle directly, and focus on the education of our people. They will always mean more than weapons in the rating of our Navy and Marine Corps team.

This point in naval history is not unique. One hundred years ago, the Navy undertook a thorough investigation in order to understand whether naval officers were being properly educated and prepared for future wars. The resulting Knox-King-Pye Report of 1920 helped reshape naval education just in time to produce the leaders who forged strategic victory on the seas in World War II. Other similar inflection points in our history — in terms of changing technology, social flows, and international power balances — found people in uniform at every rank filling pages of naval-professional and national-level journals. This is not a new challenge; it’s in our DNA to reflect on our past and reinvent our approaches to the art and science of learning.

Finally, and most importantly, education that continues to produce moral leaders is essential, especially within the context of our national defense. Our people must evoke moral clarity in how they lead – and how they project lethal force. This must never be divorced from our approach to education, and neither should the creation of a culture that evokes the best ideas possible from peers and juniors. This is a culture of humility, collaboration, transparency and trust. As Steven M. R. Covey has written, trust is an organizational “accelerator” that results when leaders possess both competence and character. As we examine the future of naval education, we must ensure an equal emphasis on both.

It is a matter of urgency that we question our current assumptions of our naval educational continuum, and design for the future. The Secretary and I are convinced that learning is the key to our continued dominance on the seas, just as it has served our glorious past. “Ex Scientia Tridens,” or “Through Knowledge, Seapower,” will always define the path for U.S. naval supremacy, so we must think very hard about what that knowledge should be — and how it must be refreshed and sustained as a competitive advantage.  

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