College of Liberal Arts

UT Alum Arms West Point Cadets with Liberal Arts Education

Wed, Apr 11, 2018
The study of literature, history, philosophy and other areas of the humanities plays a central role in the development of great leaders.
The study of literature, history, philosophy and other areas of the humanities plays a central role in the development of great leaders.

Of all the legends about Alexander the Great, there is a favorite among bibliophiles: the famous conqueror fell asleep with an annotated copy of The Iliad tucked under his pillow, dreaming of Achilles. When he led his armies into Persia, the Homer epic and the notes of his tutor, Aristotle, were thrumming in his mind, shaping his vision of great leadership. A story, not just a spear, made him a soldier to remember.

“That’s what I like to think,” said Col. David Harper, the head of the English and philosophy department at West Point. “That The Iliad was formative to him as a leader, that cadets now will also use great literature as touchstones in their military careers.”

Harper is bringing the spirit of that ancient rumor to West Point by leading the development of their new Humanities Center. The team is currently fundraising for the project and recently secured internationally praised architect, Rafael Viñoly, to design the building. The center will be built atop Trophy Hill — a treasured location at West Point — and contain collaborative spaces for academics and cadets alike, with art galleries, theater studios and more. Harper envisions not only a place for cadets to unleash their creativity, but a hub for interdisciplinary work that brings insights from the humanities into defense challenges.

The acclaimed military academy might seem like an unlikely champion of the liberal arts. West Point, after all, was the first engineering school in the nation and remains one of the best in the field today. The modern image of the military is also often tied to toughness, discipline and the value of illustrious STEM pedigrees, but Harper says the humanities are just as alive at West Point and in military culture.

“There is a remarkable synergy between the military and the liberal arts,” Harper said. “The two work so well together to develop leaders who are reflective and who are critical thinkers.”

Harper earned his Ph.D. in English from The University of Texas at Austin, where he found a passion for book history during his work at the Harry Ransom Center. As a professor at West Point, he encourages his cadets to explore literature as well. West Point cadets have read diverse novels, including The Handmaid’s Tale, Between the World and Me, and Exit West, a book that imagines a world without borders. They also delve into languages, jazz performance, psychology and sculpting. Every cadet even performs their own Shakespearean monologue before they graduate.

These creative explorations into the humanities teach cadets what math formulas can’t — nuance, diplomacy, the power of human will — all just as much a part of the military as firepower.

“Our mission is to develop leaders of character for the nation, and we think the foundation of that is a broad liberal arts education,” Harper said. “That’s why I’m so excited about the Humanities Center, because it represents that side of the military and what we do here at West Point.”

The humanities play a central role in the future security of our nation. The true signatures of a great leader — the power to stir men in the face of failure, to rally them around a cause, to decipher the secrets of an enemy — demand not just the shining artillery of the movies or data whirling in computers, but an understanding of the human mind and heart, given by the study of philosophy, literature, culture and history.

“Seeing the world through a writer or a painter’s eye, seeing that connection with the natural world as well as engaging with literary themes, builds a sense of empathy and stewardship towards the people and the planet that we live upon,” Harper said. “When we become leaders making decisions that impact individuals as well as entire countries, we cannot be without that.”

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