Leadership and Character Education at Our Academies

  • Education
  • 1998

Character education has been a centerpiece of the training provided by America’s military academies right from their foundings. The honor codes and leadership lessons expounded at West Point, Annapolis, and Colorado Springs have influenced many other schools as well. In recent decades, private donors have become increasingly active in reinforcing and enriching these offerings, with the intention of bolstering character strengths not only in the military but also in business and other sectors of civilian life.

In 1998, a $4 million endowment from Ross Perot, plus major support from the William E. Simon, John Olin, and The Lynde and Harry Bradley foundations helped create at West Point the Simon Center for the Professional Military Ethic. The center leads all cadets through the academy’s capstone course on officership, featuring repeated “dilemma-based exercises” that teach future military leaders how to balance high moral, legal, and practical responsibilities. The center also holds conferences where cadets, plus hundreds of students brought in from other colleges and universities, grapple with details of ethical decision-making, character development, and the maintenance of honor codes.

In 2011, philanthropist and former aircraft-manufacturing CEO Sandy McDonnell donated $5 million to the U.S. Air Force Academy to create its own Center for Character and Leadership Development. “The military academies are far ahead of almost all of the other universities in the emphasis they place on character-building,” explained McDonnell at the time of his gift. “I hope universities all across the nation will emulate their programs for character development.” The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation and Naval Academy graduate/NBA star/philanthropist David Robinson helped create similar programs at Annapolis. Observing that “leadership is one of the scarcest resources in the world,” former Procter & Gamble CEO Bob McDonald has given money to West Point for national conferences in character-building that train students from other colleges in methods that have produced good results at the U.S. Military Academy.