Legend has it that Alexander the Great fell asleep with an annotated copy of The Iliad tucked under his pillow, dreaming of Achilles. And when he led his armies into Persia, the Homeric epic and the notes of his tutor, Aristotle, were thrumming in his mind, shaping his vision of great leadership. A story, not just a spear, made him a soldier to remember.
“Our mission is to develop leaders of character for the nation, and we think the foundation of that is a broad liberal arts education.”Col. David Harper
Col. David Harper is bringing the spirit of that ancient rumor to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, by leading the development of its new Humanities Center, which will be built atop Trophy Hill — a treasured campus location— and contain collaborative spaces such as art galleries, theater studios and more. Harper envisions not only a place for cadets to unleash their creativity, but a hub for interdisciplinary work that brings insights from the humanities into defense challenges.
Harper found a passion for book history during his work at the Harry Ransom Center as a graduate student in English at UT Austin. As a professor at West Point, he encourages his cadets to explore literature, assigning novels such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Between the World and Me and Exit West, a book that imagines a world without borders. They also delve into languages, jazz performance, psychology and sculpting. The cadets even perform their own Shakespearean monologue before they graduate.
These creative explorations into the humanities teach cadets what math formulas can’t — nuance, diplomacy, the power of human will — all just as much a part of the military as firepower.
“Our mission is to develop leaders of character for the nation, and we think the foundation of that is a broad liberal arts education,” Harper says. “That’s why I’m so excited about the Humanities Center, because it represents that side of the military and what we do here at West Point.”
The humanities play a central role in the future security of our nation. The true signatures of a great leader — the power to stir people in the face of failure, to rally them around a cause, to decipher the secrets of an enemy — demand not just the shining artillery of the movies or data whirling in computers, but an understanding of the human mind and heart, given by the study of philosophy, literature, culture and history.
“Seeing the world through a writer’s or a painter’s eye, seeing that connection with the natural world as well as engaging with literary themes, builds a sense of empathy and stewardship toward the people and the planet that we live upon,” Harper says. “When we become leaders making decisions that impact individuals as well as entire countries, we cannot be without that.”