Great Leaders Are Made
An evolutionary perspective on the Thayer method of teaching used at West Point.
Posted April 3, 2014
Sylvanus Thayer, a superintendent at the United States Military Academy in the early 1800s, had an enormous vision regarding the education of the cadets—and many of these cadets have, as history tells us, emerged as some of the most influential leaders in human history. Ulysses Grant, Robert E. Lee, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, Stonewall Jackson, and on and on. The number of elite, world-class leaders to emerge from this place is simply unmatched.
So what was Thayer’s educational vision? And how did it come to shape such an enormously successful educational method that has produced graduates who have literally shaped the course of world history?
Yesterday on our campus at SUNY New Paltz, several of us were fortunate to attend a special lecture by Liberal Arts and Sciences Teacher of the Year, Hamilton Stapell. Dr. Stapell, a history professor at New Paltz, used to teach at West Point, and, as part of his duties as “teacher of the year,” he gave us a presentation on the nature of teaching. In doing so, he described the Thayer method of teaching that he learned at West Point—and he described how he applies this approach with our students at New Paltz regularly. Dr. Stapell is an outstanding teacher at a school that places a premium on teaching, so this was a truly great opportunity if you’re like me and you care a lot about the nature of college teaching and cultivating the next generation of leaders.
In describing his experience teaching at West Point, Dr. Stapell started by describing the first rule that West Point teachers are given—you’re not allowed to lecture—at all! …What? Isn’t that what college teaching IS? And wouldn’t you expect a place with such a military history and an authoritarian approach to underscore this traditional teaching method—of having one expert individual lecture and provide information to a bunch of young, dutiful students? They don’t lecture at West Point? At all?
So this seemed surprising to the folks in the audience. And, of course, the next question is begged—what DO they do at this esteemed, larger-than-life institution? How do they educate—how do they create such great leaders?
Apparently, according to Dr. Stapell, this educational method is 100 percent activity-based. The classrooms have boards on all four sides of the room—and all cadets are charged with engaging in activities related to the material throughout the class. Get in a group, discuss the material, write notes on the board—come up with a set of implications for modern life—tell the class about it. You’ve all read about this famous historical figure—discuss as a group his positive and negative attributes—and controversies regarding his life—and give a presentation to the rest of us—teach US about what his life and work implies about how the world operates now. Etc.
In this context, students are constantly engaged and empowered—they own their education. They own how much they learn and how much others learn. How much education will happen within the confines of a given class? This is up to each and every individual cadet—with the professor who is tasked not with teaching them, per se, but, rather, with getting them to teach one another.
We are talking United States Military Academy—a place apart. If this is how education has transpired at West Point for over 200 years, there’s little question that it works. And this fact tells me this—maybe the best way to cultivate strong, civic-minded leaders is not to teach them about X, Y, or Z, but, rather, to empower them to feel that they have the power and ability to take the material, connect with it, and describe it to others in a way that is meaningful and clear. And hopefully inspiring. Perhaps the best way to teach the leaders of tomorrow is, from Day One, to make it their responsibility to learn, teach, and connect with the ideas that are going to be important in their futures.
From an evolutionary perspective, leadership is critical. Across evolutionary time, as humans moved toward living in relatively egalitarian groups (see Bingham & Souza, 2009; Geher, 2014), the nature of leadership in humans shifted from primarily including large, strong, and dominant males to including individuals of either gender who had the capacity to help build consensus and coordinate group activities. Leadership in silverback gorillas is unilateralist and top-down—leadership in Homo sapiens sometimes takes that form, but more often it takes the form of community building, innovation, and inspiration. And the Thayer method of education that is fostered on the hallowed ground that is West Point seems to naturally capture the factors that lead to the development of effective leadership in our kind.
I think the folks at West Point are onto something. In fact, given the track record of that place, I know that they are onto something! I am grateful to my friend Dr. Stapell for such a wonderful introduction to the Thayer (West Point) model of teaching—and I look forward to helping cultivate this approach in my own teaching and in the work of other teachers that I’m fortunate to work with across my career.
Bingham, P. M., & Souza, J. (2009). Death from a distance and the birth of a humane universe. Lexington, KY: BookSurge Publishing.