Printer Friendly

Teaching law at West Point.


As the nature of military missions changes, both the law curriculum and the law faculty's teaching methods at the U.S. Military Academy must adapt to meet both the professional and academic needs of cadets. We have addressed the former by balancing the courses in the legal studies program according to their dominant academic or professional orientation, and the latter by introducing a "diversity" teaching method, adapted from a proposed approach to first-year law school instruction, to develop the critical thinking skills required of Army officers.


Law has been taught at the United States Military Academy at West Point for over 180 years. Like all academic disciplines at the Academy, its purpose is help achieve an overarching goal: "to enable its graduates to anticipate and to respond effectively to the uncertainties of a changing technological, social, political, and economic world" (Office of the Dean, n.d., 6). In the past decade, the academic curriculum, along with the physical and military components of the four-year education and training program at West Point, have changed significantly in order better to achieve this purpose. No longer required to follow an almost exclusively engineering curriculum, cadets must now balance their four-year course load equally between mathematics, sciences, and engineering courses on the one hand, and the humanities and social sciences on the other. More recently, besides the required thirty-one "core" courses that all cadets must take, cadets are now able to pursue academic majors, including (since 1999) law and legal studies.

A challenge faced by the Department of Law since then has been how best to design an undergraduate program and teach the subject of law to the roughly one thousand cadets each year who take the one core course in law--Constitutional and Military Law--and to the sixty cadets who choose each year to major in law. On the one hand, these cadets are college undergraduates. Most will not become lawyers, but an understanding of law and its role in the nation and the world, as well as the analytical and communication skills derived from the study of law, are important assets for leaders in any field, including military leaders. On the other hand, as future Army officers, cadets need the professional knowledge and skills necessary to perform the numerous legal tasks required of military officers. These include decision-making responsibility in areas such military justice, environmental law and regulations, labor law, government procurement, and international law.

The legal studies program must therefore address both the "academic" and the "professional" aspects of teaching law to cadets that are implicit in the Academy's overarching academic goal. As used here, the term "academic" refers to courses that have an orientation towards the theoretical understanding of law and its function in societies, while the term "professional" refers to courses that are oriented towards knowledge that is practically applicable to the military profession. Of course, the terms are relative; all law courses taught at West Point contain to some degree both an academic and a professional orientation.

This article explains how the Department seeks to meet this dual requirement. It first describes the Department's academic program, including courses and summer internships. It then examines the composition of the faculty and how legal subjects are taught to cadets. In both sections it identifies some problems and issues that must be addressed. It concludes that the Department's program design is intentionally structured to balance the academic and professional requirements of the academic goal, while adoption of a diversity model seems likely to improve the effectiveness of teaching the courses that comprise the program

The Academic Program in Law

The program in law consists of the core course taken by all cadets in their senior year (Constitutional and Military Law), and a major in law and legal studies consisting of ten courses. The core course has been a required subject for all cadets since law was first taught at West Point in the early nineteenth century, and the rationale for this requirement remains the same. Upon graduation cadets take an oath to support and defend the Constitution, so they should understand what the Constitution says and means. As junior officers they will administer the military justice system in which they must balance the need for military discipline and operational readiness with the expectation that soldiers receive justice. As senior officers they need to understand the continued significance of the constitutional separation of powers and individual rights that are the core of this country's government, and that are increasingly relevant to the Army's new nation-building missions abroad.

The professional rationale for this required course is usually readily apparent to cadets, as they are generally motivated to acquire knowledge, such as the structure and processes of military justice, that can be applied to their future profession. Indeed, the practical significance of this subject is reflected in its placement in the senior year. However, it is often necessary to elaborate to cadets the academic rationale for the course, that is, the acquisition of critical thinking skills necessary to deal with the uncertainty that is the key concept in the Academy's overarching academic goal. The design of the course seeks to promote these skills. The approximately five hundred cadets who take the course in each of the fall and spring semesters are distributed among twenty-six sections taught by nearly all of the seventeen faculty members in Law Department, so the small classes of eighteen or so cadets can be taught by a modified Socratic method based on the reasoning of judicial decisions. The course grade is determined by written papers based on hypothetical cases in both civilian and military contexts, in which legal reasoning rather than a single correct solution is emphasized.

The major in law and legal studies consists of ten courses. In choosing which courses to offer, both the academic and professional requirements of the overarching academic goal were considered in order to provide an appropriate balance. Courses that may be considered as predominantly, though not exclusively, academic in content and design are Introduction to the Legal Method, Advanced Constitutional Law, Comparative Legal Systems, International Law, and Jurisprudence and Legal Theory. Courses that may be considered more professional include Law of War, Environmental Law, National Security Law, and Business Law. Of course, each of these courses contains to some extent both academic and professional perspectives relevant to future officers. Each cadet is also required to take two courses from a menu of offerings in other academic departments. In order to focus the program of study for each cadet, these courses are selected for their relevance to law. Moreover, they are grouped in a series of "tracks" that relate to specific areas of the law: environmental law, national security law, business law, international law, constitutional law, jurisprudential studies, and general law. For example, courses within the constitutional law track include comparative politics, the American presidency, and legislative politics, all offered by the Department of Social Sciences, and early national America, offered by the Department of History. A feature of the program that is expected to be implemented within the next few years is the opportunity for cadets to pursue a major with honors. In addition to meeting certain grade and other prerequisites for this program, cadets will take two courses in their senior year, in which they will propose, research, write, and defend a thesis on a legal topic of their choosing. An explicit requirement of the thesis is to address and discuss both the academic and professional issues involved in the chosen subject.

One problem faced by an undergraduate law and legal studies program taught within a law department is the possibility of overlap and redundancy with courses offered by other departments. Undergraduate courses in areas such as constitutional law, jurisprudence and legal philosophy, and even international law at other colleges are often taught within departments of political science, social studies, and philosophy. Unlike legal education in most other countries, the study of law in the United States has long been pursued within a graduate professional school. Faculty and program directors in other departments are therefore often uncertain of the scope and purpose of the law and legal studies program offered by the Department of Law, since courses taught by lawyers are often assumed to be exclusively professional in nature. Explaining the law program in terms of a combination of academic and professional courses that meets the particular overarching academic goal of the Academy is both helpful and necessary in increasing awareness by other departments of the structure and function of the legal studies program. The law faculty has also increased its efforts to assist in teaching parts of courses within other departments that have legal content. Examples include lessons in the law of armed conflict for ethics and philosophy courses offered by the Department of Social Sciences, and lessons in the development of Greek and Roman in courses taught by the Department of English. This increased visibility and interdisciplinary teaching has improved the understanding by other departments of the nature and structure of the law and legal studies program.

The Department of Law's summer internship program, the Advanced Academic Individual Development (AIAD) program, exposes cadets to a wide range of legal issues and practices. Cadets interact with practicing lawyers, policy makers, and various participants in the international, federal, state, and military legal systems. Without question, such practical experiences provide cadets with greater context and meaning to the lessons they learn at the Academy. The value of the AIAD experience as a supplement to the overall academic program depends on proper assessment of the cadets' performance. There are two reason why assessment of this part of the program is a challenge. First, cadets will have different experiences during their internship. Even if cadets go to the same location, they will likely be involved in different activities. Second, depending on a cadet's summer military training schedule, the length of the internship may vary. Typically, an internship lasts three weeks. In the past cadets have been required to report on their experience to a selected group of faulty members. The quality of these reports has varied from thorough to perfunctory. Additional work is required to establish appropriate metrics to better assess the individual internships for the cadets' academic progress.

Faculty and Teaching

The Law Department's faculty is distinctive in several respects. Unlike many other undergraduate legal studies programs where faculty members are non-lawyers (such as political scientists, anthropologists, and sociologists), the Department of Law's faculty is comprised entirely of attorneys. There are several other unique characteristics of the faculty. First, the majority of the faculty have advanced law degrees or advanced degrees in other disciplines, or both. Second, all of the faculty have been practicing attorneys prior to arriving at West Point. This is frequently not the case for full-time faculty at undergraduate or law schools (Rapoport 107). However, having individuals who have "real-world" experiences within their discipline serves to complement the "professional" aspect of the law program, and therefore seems appropriate for this institution. Another distinctive characteristic of the faculty, and a relatively recent development, is the mixture of permanent and temporary teachers. Of the seventeen members of the Department's faculty, three are military attorneys permanently assigned to West Point, three are civilian faculty members, and the remaining eleven are "rotating" faculty, who are assigned to teach at West Point for three years, after which they will return to regular assignments in the Army. Every two or three years the Department receives permission and funding for a visiting professor, who is usually a member of a law school faculty. The visiting professors usually teach several sections of the core course in the fall semester, and then teach a course (designated a "Special Topics" course) in the area of their specialty during the spring semester.

This faculty mixture has several advantages for the dual academic and professional nature of the law instruction. The combination of military and civilian faculty provides a balanced perspective on subjects and issues. At the same time, the mixture of permanent and rotating faculty allows for continuity within the Department as well as the infusion of new and practical ideas and experiences. The establishment of a major in law and legal studies, the recent assignment of permanent military and civilian faculty to the Department, and rebalancing of the program between "academic" and "professional" courses, have created the necessity and opportunity to reevaluate how best to teach law to cadets. For several reasons, a diversity model suggested by Bateman (1997) to improve instruction of first year law students seems to offer the right approach for the law program at West Point. This model suggests that because individual students have different learning styles, the traditional "Socratic" method of teaching law should be supplemented a variety of teaching methods employed throughout the semester by each teacher in order to reach different types of learners. The five methods he recommends for consideration are, besides the Socratic method: debriefing students on their classroom participation, writing assignments throughout the semester, games in and out of the classroom, the student learning contract, and computer-aided instruction.

This "diversity approach" seems especially appropriate for the combined academic/professional educational experience that exists at West Point. Although Bateman's suggestions are directed towards the teaching of first year law students, his observations seem appropriate for somewhat younger learners who are being educated for leadership in a specific profession as well as for their development as individuals and citizens. Of course, implementation of this approach would require a methodology of observation and reporting in order to assess accurately the effectiveness of these various techniques. The combined academic and professional orientation can also create difficulties in choosing appropriate textbooks, so the writing and use of supplementary materials by faculty within the Department is necessary and common.

This model presents several additional challenges. A problem reported by our faculty at various times during the academic year is a tendency to rely on "what is comfortable" rather than devoting the considerable time necessary to develop new teaching styles in order to meet the different learning styles of students, as suggested by this diversity model. For the majority of rotating faculty members who normally spend three years on the faculty before returning to regular military assignments, and who have significant practical experience as well as an educational memory shaped by law school and the teaching methods to which they were exposed (primarily the Socratic method), there is even less time for them to develop and feel comfortable with new methods of instruction. The success of this model for the law program would therefore seem to depend on developing an intensive mentoring program by senior faculty for incoming and junior faculty members, beginning in the summer of their arrival. We are redesigning our summer faculty development workshops to address the issues raised by this model, using the pedagogical resources of the Academy's Center for Teaching Excellence[1]. The summer workshops offered by the Department for its new faculty must be restructured to place greater emphasis on understanding, applying, and assessing the diversity model of teaching, and experienced faculty, once they have themselves used a diverse teaching approach, must actively assist newer faculty in adopting this model during the academic year.


Consistent with the Academy's overarching goal, the law program has been refined to offer both "academic" and "professional" courses. Program assessment (from indicators such as high levels of enrollment in the law and legal studies major and both formal and informal cadet feedback) indicates that this program satisfies the intellectual interests of cadets as well as meets their professional needs. Our teaching of both the practical and academic aspects of the program benefits immensely from the combination of permanent and rotating faculty. But new rotating faculty, who have practical legal background but usually little teaching experience, need to understand that despite the common experiences of West Point cadets, they remain individuals with different learning styles.

We therefore need to prepare better our rotating faculty to teach to these different learning styles. The diversity teaching model for improving the teaching of first year students in law school seems a useful approach for our unique program Consequently, we need to shift the perspective from teacher-oriented teaching ("I am most comfortable doing it this way") towards student-oriented teaching ("I need to vary my approach during the semester to better meet the different learning styles of the students") that recognizes diversity as teaching model for our undergraduate law program. We can make progress here through improving our summer seminars for incoming faculty, and supporting our new faculty to develop a diverse teaching methodology within the classroom.


[1] The purpose of the Center for Teaching Excellence at the United States Military Academy is to enhance cadet intellectual development through high quality faculty development programs. It seeks to provide consultation and resources to departments and individual faculty members; to conduct, in collaboration with faculty, educational research and development; and to serve as a conduit for educational information.


Bateman, Paul, "Toward Diversity in Teaching Methods in Law Schools: Five Suggestions from the Back Row," Quinnipiac Law Review, Vol. 17 (Fall 1997).

CTE Purpose and Mission. Retrieved May 16, 2004, from

Finnegan, Patrick, The Study of Law as a Foundation of Leadership and Command: A History of the Teaching of Law at the United States Military Academy at West Point (unpublished manuscript).

Office of the Dean, Educating Future Army Officers for a Changing World: Operational Concept for the Academic Program at the United States Military Academy, 2nd Ed. West Point, NY: U.S. Military Academy (undated).

Rapoport, Nancy B., "Is 'Thinking Like a Lawyer' Really What We Want to Teach?" Journal of the Association of Legal Writing Directors (2002). Retrieved May 24, 2004, from

David Wallace, U.S. Military Academy

Mark Welton, U.S. Military Academy

Lieutenant Colonel Wallace, J.D., is Academy Professor, and Welton, S.J.D., is Associate Professor, in the Department of Law.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Rapid Intellect Group, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Welton, Mark
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2004
Previous Article:Two cultures in military education.
Next Article:Early ethics education at USNA.

Related Articles
Competence and character: developing leaders in the LAPD.
Philosophy and ethics education for cadets.
Boring v. interesting.
Native peoples aren't dinosaurs.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters