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Insurgency in Education?

October 28, 2015

I’ve just finished reading “Knife Fights” (2014) by Lt. Col. John A. Nagl (retired). I’ll explain why I read this book, well outside my field of interest, momentarily.

A memoir of his life in the military, this is the natural sequel to his 2002 “Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife”. That earlier book, derived from his doctoral thesis, is an unflinching indictment of the U.S. military as a learning organization. I found it interesting, and even encouraging, that such a description was not just tolerated, but celebrated, within the military. Maybe the jury is still out on that indictment.

A Rhodes Scholar, Nagl earned his doctorate at Oxford with a specialty on counterinsurgency.

From Wikipedia, “Cecil Rhodes' goals in creating the Rhodes Scholarships were to promote civic-minded leadership amongst young people with (in the words of his 1899 Will) "moral force of character and instincts to lead", and (as he wrote in a 1901 codicil to his Will) to help "render war impossible" through promoting understanding between the great powers.

Nagl’s military career was dedicated to the study of a large complex system whose successes led to complacency, and ultimately, to abysmal failure in the learning department. Success is often a good predictor of failure. The key to sustained success, it would seem, is in not getting married to your achievements.

Assigned by General David Petraeus, Nagl co-authored the Army and Marine counterinsurgency field manual. That manual became the de facto Bible for counterinsurgency, at least for those enlightened enough to understand that few future wars will be fought in open fields. Apparently, it was downloaded over a million times, including by Al Qaeda and by the Taliban.

Nagl’s profile was meaningfully raised outside of the military by his 2007 appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Unlike me, some in the audience didn’t so much enjoy his reference to a quotation from General James Mattis, “Be polite, be professional, be prepared to kill.”

Central to success in counterinsurgency is winning of the hearts and minds of the population. This was the U.S. failure in Vietnam. Unless and until this is achieved, any military victory can only be described as temporary.

Nagl’s recent book is less theory and more real-life as an account of his experiences and observations in the field (principally in Iraq) but also in Washington. His journey included stints in academia that enabled him to step enough to the side to take in the big picture/little picture dynamic among those charged with making decisions in and for the U.S. military.

Although I play chess every single day, let me say first that I have no direct interest in military strategy. I will follow by saying that “Knife Fights” is a book well worth reading. I’m sure the military lessons are numerous, but I read it for another reason, and came out of it with a whole new perspective on the subjects of insurgency and counterinsurgency. Importantly, I now see a place for related skills in pretty near every field of endeavour.

I read this book because the author is now two years into his tenure as the ninth Headmaster of The Haverford School. Since 1999, I’ve conducted 15 key constituent surveys for Haverford, so you might say I’m pretty well acquainted with the school, its culture, and its community. Nagl’s predecessor in this position, Colonel Joe Cox (retired), was also a product of West Point, so that part of the appointment I get.

What intrigues me about this posting is that, at first glance, it seems completely out of sync with a career destined for high places in Washington or Arlington or maybe even Langley. Here’s a highly respected, accomplished person with connections in the corridors of power that others could not establish over several lifetimes. Compounding the seeming incongruity, Nagl retains a high profile with regular appearances on national network television as the nation’s leading authority on strategies in counterinsurgency. His hand is still in the kitchen, and I believe he’s still stirring the pot, if nothing else.

Puzzling though this Haverford posting may be, I believe there’s more to it than meets the eye. I have no doubt that having access to a great education for his son was a significant factor in the decision to accept this position. At the same time, everything I read by him and about him says that this fellow is on a mission that necessarily returns to the study of insurgency and counterinsurgency.

Not far into the book, I began to see connections between his work in the military and the headship of a leading independent boys’ school. No shortage of opportunity for counterinsurgency there, to be sure. Additionally, among other things, independent schools are society’s laboratory for education. Unfettered by government or public school boards or unions, this is a place of study, of reflection, and of innovation… and maybe insurgency.

Nagl’s study of counterinsurgency flies in the face of tradition and convention in the military. His recurring theme of the learning organization, or as the case may be, the ‘not-learning organization’ drips from every page of both books. Having studied the man through his written words, I cannot imagine him investing seven years waiting for his son to graduate from Haverford without making some mark of change on the school. That just won’t happen. He is an agitant and his drive, it appears to me, is in the creation, development, and sustenance of a learning organization. I would guess that anyone working for him who thinks there’s job security in past performance is nothing less than delusional.

As I see it, John Nagl may be as much an insurgent as he is a counterinsurgent.

Largely unchanged from what was created in the 1830s, today’s model of education is a veritable invitation to insurgency. Just as its overwhelming success in full scale open field warfare has, in some measure, numbed the U.S. military to innovation (why fix it if it’s not broken?), the factory school model resists movement away from great success. This model was immensely successful in gathering from the farms large groups of potential factory workers, ringing bells for timely compliance, sitting obedient students in rows, and training for repeated tasks. In the middle of the 19th century, it was precisely the answer to a pressing need. As described by Alvin Toffler, however, in his 1980 masterpiece, “The Third Wave,” the sector of our economy that has changed the least in the past 150 years is the sector that needs most to change… education. Stuck in the Second Wave, again, success breeds complacency. Complacency, in turn, breeds failure.

Is there a marriage of opportunity at hand? As always, time judges all. Nagl writes much on the need for counterinsurgency on a large-scale. Insurgency, on the other hand, does not require scale, just the will to do battle with status quo. Certainly, one school on Philadelphia’s Main Line, while it is a great school, does not represent large scale. This is also a school steeped in tradition. Is there a will to do battle? I’ll be watching with great interest. When tradition meets innovation, the result is an interesting and often entertaining dynamic.

Related, I was encouraged during a breakfast shared with Nagl at the school early this month. As is often the case, when someone sets me free on the state of education today, I jump up on my ‘character and values’ soapbox and go for broke. And that morning, I did just that.

Our broad model of education has dropped the ball, or rather, declined to carry the ball downfield from where it worked well to answer the needs of times gone by. Now that we’re no longer pulling our children off the farms and educating them to work in factories, the question that needs to be asked and answered is, “which elements of the ‘factory school’ still add value, and which ones need to go?”

Moreover, the factory model school has only been amplified by an imbalance of influence coming from the employer community. Employers cry out to legislators, “bring us these skills”. That cry carries through educational bureaucracies to colleges and universities, and down through high schools, all the way to kindergarten programs.

This focus on ‘employable skills’ has unfortunately led to the exclusion of citizenship, recognition of the greater good, and the development of character and values. Ayn Rand reigns supreme when these key components are shuffled to the side. We don’t need to look far to see that we reap what we’ve sown.

I didn’t get too far into my rant when Nagl gave me a sideways look, asking suspiciously if I’d been reading into his own recent materials. Under his leadership, The Haverford School is now redoubling its focus on character and values. If you’ve been reading my blog entries, you know that everything I’ve written over the years necessarily lands on character and values. Nothing new here.

An old African proverb tells us that it takes a whole village to raise a child. Some will dispute this, leaving that assignment solely in the hands of the family. Unfortunately, neither the family nor the village exist in the same construct I knew as a child. Indeed, the world now calls more than ever, not less, on our schools to make a contribution to the development of a child’s character and values.

Perhaps a side point (or perhaps not), I hear so much in my travels about math and science, math and science, math and science. These are proclaimed as key guideposts to the path ahead. I honestly wonder why this is so. Perhaps concrete concepts offer more comfort to parents and educators as they contemplate the future for our children. I’m pretty sure that these guideposts are not so anchored in concrete as many among us believe. When I hear parents dreaming out loud about careers in engineering for their children, for example, I’m compelled to ask. “If China and India are graduating between four and ten times as many engineers as we are, and if Tom Friedman is right that the globalized world is flat, are we not steering our kids into what soon will be minimum wage jobs?” That’s exactly the question I asked ten years ago at a school’s Board of Trustees retreat. Attendees were challenged to ponder on education in a globalized world. Preparing students for careers in engineering was posed as a key objective. My question was met by absolute silence.

We could debate the numbers all day and all night. Let’s not do that. Enough to say that global accessibility to education leaves us in serious need of understanding how we can best differentiate our children’s skill set in an uncertain world with no promise of anything… excepting uncertainty. How can we prepare them to adapt when their chosen career path is pulled out from beneath their feet? You’ve just been replaced by a machine. You’re obsolete. Good luck and good-bye!

A focus on academics is necessary but not sufficient.

In the absence of character and values, all the technical learning in the world will be insufficient. Of course I want my children to learn math and science. Bring it on, but don’t do it without an eye to character and values. Don’t do it without an eye to citizenship. Don’t do it without an eye to the greater good. I want most that my children find fulfillment in making a contribution to something larger than themselves. If they can find that fulfillment and are happy doing so, I could not give a hoot nor a holler how much they earn doing it. But that’s just me up on my soapbox.

Over the past twenty years, I’ve worked closely with almost 100 independent schools, conducting hundreds of surveys of key constituents. I have yet to encounter a school that does not meet the threshold of academic preparedness for postsecondary education. That’s a given. Kicking it up another notch on the academic front will not add significant incremental value to what comes out the other end. What will distinguish success for our children, both in education and in the world at large, will not be their level of academic preparedness beyond a certain threshold. Past this threshold, we’re looking at diminishing if not negative returns. A little fertilizer makes for green grass. Too much fertilizer makes for something else altogether. If they are to meet with success, what will separate our children from the counterpart will be their ingrained character and values. How they face and adapt to unexpected challenges, detours, failures, and moral dilemmas… this is what will define them. This is how they will make their mark in the world. This is what I want for my own children. How’s that for insurgency?

Asked how I would create a program to teach character and values, my answer is this: Schools used to develop IT programs as standalone units. They don’t do that anymore. IT is embedded in every discipline. It’s not a standalone. Character and values are not a standalone either. As I see it, the one and only starting point for teaching character and values is in the hiring and retention of teachers possessing of character and values. Teaching technical skills to our children, in the absence of character and values, is nothing but a missed opportunity. From C.S. Lewis, “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.”

Our factory model schools have stressed the development of technical skills far beyond anything that could be described as a reasonably healthy state. In some measure, we’ve forgotten that our primary task in education is to help our children find a place of belonging, and again, to become net contributors to something larger than themselves. Before we can provide such an education to our children at scale, we will need first to ingrain in ourselves and in others the true purpose of education. Until we can win the hearts and minds of parents, teachers, and Boards on this front, no new advances in the field will be achieved.

As I see it, our factory schools are in serious need of insurgency. Insurgency requires insurgents. I have met a few educational insurgents in my travels… not enough, but a few. Is John Nagl yet one more such insurgent? Maybe yes. I hope yes.

As I say, time judges all.

With respect,


Kevin Graham

P.S.: Give the book a read. It’s time well spent.

Knife Fights – A memoir of modern war in theory and practice, Lt. Col. John A. Nagl, Penguin Press, 2014


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