One of the nation’s oldest and most respected educational institutions is the U.S. Military Academy, known to most Americans as simply West Point. During the American Revolution, Gen. George Washington considered West Point to be a vital strategic site, overlooking the Hudson River with its access to and from New York City. The first fortifications were built on the plateau in 1778. In 1802, Thomas Jefferson signed the legislation that founded West Point as a leading source of officers and leaders for the new nation’s military services. It is significant that that law specifies that attendees be representative of a democratic society.
Founded as an educational institution devoted to the arts and sciences of warfare, West Point fulfills that purpose and much more today. Many of our nation’s most illustrious leaders are alumni of the academy and its tradition of Duty, Honor and Country.
Admission to West Point is made by competitive selection. Out of an average of 11,000 applicants annually, approximately 1,300 students are admitted to each new class. Admission is by appointment from members of Congress, the President and a small number of other sources. New students, called cadets, commit to five years of service as an officer in the U.S. Army upon graduation. For this commitment, all tuition and expenses are covered by the government. Cadets also receive monthly compensation that increases each year of attendance. However, the level of effort required to succeed and graduate from West Point leaves very few feeling they receive a “free ride” education. The total hours of study taken over the four-year program are normally 20 to 25 percent greater than those at a liberal arts school. While the environment fostered is a competitive one, there is a focused priority on leadership and the development of a deep sense of teamwork. Friendships made among the cadets endure a lifetime.
Majestic is a term often used to describe the grounds of West Point and its setting on the Hudson River. Bucolic is also used as a description of the surrounding countryside. The town outside the gates reflects its two centuries of association with the academy. However, cadets are only one hour from New York City and can easily access the many attractions of New England, including nearby Connecticut.
Cadets live a structured, disciplined life during their four years at the U.S. Military Academy. There is just one fraternity, that of the Corps of Cadets. The past two decades have seen more freedom granted, but the weekday routine is full of classes, study, sports and a large number of clubs and other activities. Weekends are filled with dozens of sports and activities, from plays to hosting visitors. More freedom comes with each successive year as a cadet, with seniors, or “Firsties,” granted a number of weekend leaves. Cadets are considered officers in the Army and have to be granted permission to leave West Point for weekends or longer periods.
All cadets live in large dormitories and all 4,000 eat together in the mess hall. They are grouped by companies, with approximately 120 cadets in each unit, made up of all four classes. There is a quasi-military structure in each company with cadets chosen for leadership positions. A great deal of camaraderie develops among the members of the individual companies.
With an environment as demanding and structured as that of the U.S. Military Academy, each incoming class naturally has some cadets who didn’t know what they were signing up for. Some of these individuals leave before the start of their junior year without incurring any military obligation. The short winters at West Point can be dreary and even depressing, giving those months the nickname of the “Dark Ages.” Bottom line: Even more than students at traditional schools, West Point cadets keep their eyes on the prize and a retain a perspective that they are working hard for a worthwhile goal.
Anyone who has ever been involved in an effort bigger than themselves understands part of the sense of pride that cadets gain during their time at West Point. They pay a price to earn a place on the roster of graduates. The idea of serving one’s country does not resonate equally with every individual in our nation, but it becomes a real part of each cadet’s value system and life perspective. Graduates leave the academy with a distinction and outlook that they treasure for a lifetime. Tens of thousands of visitors tour West Point annually. Since 9/11, entrance requires ID and registration to enter. All visitors are required to have escorts at all times and are restricted from dorms and many other areas. Popular destinations for visitors include its very impressive museum (free admission), the chapel with its massive organ, and Lookout Point. Of course, the seasonal parades and reviews attract standing room only crowds.
When Gen. Douglas MacArthur gave his famous retirement speech at West Point, he was only one of a long line of illustrious graduates who attributed their success to being an alumnus. War heroes, presidents and corporate leaders by the thousands are all part of what graduates call the Long Gray Line. Cadets are surrounded with plaques and reminders of people such as Gen. Grant, Dwight Eisenhower and Colin Powell.
By law, West Point is an engineering school and cadets graduate with a degree in engineering, while there are a number of available majors. Many of these majors afford study in the humanities and non-military areas. Academic requirements for admittance are high, and the course work demands a focused and disciplined approach to study. The classes are demanding but not beyond the capabilities of most cadets. A traditional curriculum in math and the sciences is augmented by numerous courses such as leadership, military strategy and military history. West Point’s Honor Code demands individual performance and achievement, but many group projects and tasks also demand success at working as a team. Some of the academic elite of the academy are allowed to engage in independent research and the school has produced a number of Rhodes and Fulbright scholars.
Speaking at West Point is an honor sought by respected and well-known individuals. Political, literary and military speakers are only a few of the categories represented by those who visit the academy and speak to the Corps each year. Likewise, a number of events and seminars are hosted each year, such as the International-National-Local Conference, and the school has a competitive debate program. Many professors are career military officers who have earned advanced degrees in subjects ranging from the sciences to military history; likewise, the teaching staff writes books and contributes to scholarly publications. The August 24, 2009, issue of Forbes included a story titled, “America’s Best College: How West Point Beats the Ivy League.”
As a part of building the characteristics of leadership and teamwork, as well as encouraging top physical conditioning, every cadet is involved in sports while at the academy. Whether intramural or intercollegiate, achievement and excellence in all forms of sports are encouraged and recognized. While football – and beating Navy – is important, there is a balanced focus on all sports, including fencing and lacrosse. Winning is a priority at West Point, but never at the expense of sportsmanship and honor.
The U.S. Military Academy is on the southern edge of New England, which delivers cold weather in January and February (the Dark Ages) but avoids the more brutal extremes that come further north. The location high above the Hudson provides a buffer to the worst summer heat and leaves a generally pleasant environment for most months of the year.
Due to the schedule followed by cadets, most social activities with the opposite sex are focused on the weekends and with visitors, not fellow cadets. During the week sports, clubs and other activities involve the entire Corps and, during the fall and spring, the Corps parades attract many visitors, friends and family members. The male to female ratio hovers around 83 percent male to 17 percent female. There are rules and traditions against fraternization between cadets. There are two months during the summer, plus the Christmas holidays, when cadets generally are free to travel or spend time at home. Graduation is a major event at the school and activities cover several days.
While West Point has more than 4,000 healthy young cadets interested in most of the same things that their peers are concerned about, they individually subscribe to a specific code of conduct and an honor code that limits many of the college hijinks and practices typical of a traditional college or university. There is a higher than normal amount of attention paid by cadets to current and world events, particularly those that affect the military. In a post-9/11 world, the cadets know that they can be in combat within months of graduation; this reality plays a role in a cadet’s view of what is serious and what is not.
The well-maintained facilities at West Point are made available for the task of producing qualified leaders and military officers. Seen as an extension of the country’s history and reputation, the grounds are kept immaculate and worthy of an institution with centuries of tradition.
It can be expected that such a place as West Point would have many traditions and interesting stories. It does not disappoint in this respect, and every incoming cadet is required to memorize pages of facts and minutiae. The popular tours for visitors relate many of these stories. Since cadets cannot be married while at West Point, the is filled with dozens of weddings occuring ever hour for days after graduation.
Of course, as mentioned, for a student body being trained to be warriors, the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and any other military hotspots are always topics of interest and discussion at West Point.