Lessons From West Point

Lessons From West Point

I arrived on the grounds of USMA West Point in the late afternoon and found my room in the Distinguished Visitor’s Quarters, a renovated three-story Victorian near the parade grounds and overlooking the mighty Hudson River. Cadets walked home in pairs, trios, and small groups, or jogged down the road in full gear or shorts and tees, fulfilling their daily physical training regimen. The last sun fell on the hills above the river’s eastern shore.  Spring pink blossoms dappled the edges of the bright green parade grounds.

From "my" porch in the Distinguished Visitor's Quarters

From “my” porch in the Distinguished Visitor’s Quarters

I always walk more quietly when I am here; it feels like a museum, a church, and a place of learning all at once. I walk taller, too, as if not everyone is allowed to be here and I get to show my respect.  Today I will wear a tie; I almost never wear a tie any more but I sure as heck will wear one today.

This morning I will visit the grave of young Lt. Dimitri del Castillo, friend to my children, my wife, and me back in the day, a little boy who played ball with us on our front lawn and rode his bike around our street when we lived in Houston. He died in a firefight on some dry mountainside in Afghanistan when his unit came under attack.

Why am I here? Because some of the faculty at West Point are interested in the changes taking place in K-12 education. They recognize that if the students we graduate from high school are evolving their learning, then a great college must evolve as well.  Not everyone here agrees, and surely the rigid traditional West Point education system is not aligned with the progressive, transformational, Dewey-inspired learning ecosystem that “we” preach.  And that is just fine.  They asked me to come talk to them, so I came.  The faculty don’t really have any money to pay for people like me, and I don’t care.  I have been honored to know and work with some of these men and women in uniform for about five years now, and all they have to do is ask.

When I talk to educators here…heck, when I talk to anyone here…I try to make the point that I know something about education and learning, but I have no experience in being shot at. If we really believe in the value of an experiential education, we remember that difference.

Why am I here? Because in the Falconer seminar I taught to some cadets a few summer ago, one young man said, “Now I understand why asking questions is so important. If I don’t ask the right questions, someone I am responsible for is going to die.”  I can’t think of many privileges greater than that kind of teaching.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

About the Author:


  1. Leslie Mark May 7, 2014 at 11:39 am - Reply

    Grant –

    What a lovely piece to have shared this morning – and an important reminder that could well serve us across a spectrum of endeavors as we engage with “those others” every day. And I hate to correct, but I feel I must – ever so gently – say that you have incorrectly written your sentence below. Young Dimitri was “a friend to me” always, even when following “my children” and “my wife” — and never “a friend to I.” To have incorrectly written this, good and earnest educator, diluted (just a little) the power of your story and that’s a shame.

    Have a wonderful day in that special place. Leslie

    Leslie D. Mark | 12328 Pembroke Lane | Leawood, KS 66209 ldmark@alumnae.smith.edu 913-269-7551(m) iPad originated ~ please excuse funky tpyos and other goofs!


    • glichtman May 7, 2014 at 9:03 pm - Reply

      Yikes! Thanks, my own father would have been horrified!

  2. Ed Jones May 8, 2014 at 7:04 pm - Reply

    It’s been awhile since I thought much on education at the academies. When I started this game, they were much on my mind.

    Monday I was at Knowledgeworks, in Cincinnati. They’re big into project-based schools, and early college, and their Forecast 2025:Recombinant Learning.

    As I left I passed the Underground Railroad Freedom Center, and meandered, of a first really warm day, to where the Reds play.

    It’s the beautiful bronze statues that I have in mind, the statues of baseball players. We don’t build many bronze statues these days. When we do, they are of athletes.

    I used to be part of debates as to whether West Point and Annapolis over-emphasized Engineering. Perhaps they should teach more world studies, the argument went. We wouldn’t have been so surprised on Sept 11.
    I said I was an engineer and wasn’t surprised in the least.

    The word ‘duty’ comes to mind. It was a popular word when we made bronze statues of men who did other than play boys’ games for high financial return. It’s not at all a very popular word these days. Certainly not in education.

    In our cities, 72% of babies are born without a legal father. One senses that that concept of duty has just about faded from existence.

    Will K12 take lessons from West Point? Wouldn’t that be a blessing?

    • glichtman May 8, 2014 at 8:31 pm - Reply

      Certainly some things we can learn from West Point; the first time I visited I, too, was struck by the consistency of their message, something many of our schools do not do well. The rigid traditions are both a blessing and a curse, and they know it.

Leave A Comment