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Added to this website on June 6, 2011.

The American service academies are four-year schools that produce military officers. Most civilians are unfamiliar with them. The old academies, until the late 1950s, had academic programs that were traditional and generally unbending in the sense that every cadet or midshipman was forced to take the same courses.

The U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA) was conceived after years of foresight and planning to be a long-lasting institution, but in many ways it was an experiment. It had no traditions of its own when it began to train cadets. The first young men to enter were to be the Class of 1959. They entered in 1955. The actual site for the Air Force Academy was to be a large area near Colorado Springs, but the building construction for the new Academy was not complete enough for use until 1958. Consequently, the new cadets began to receive their education at a temporary site on Lowry Air Force Base near Denver.

Cadets or midshipmen at the service academies are always very busy with military training, physical education (including varsity sports), and academics. There have been, and probably always will be, competition for the students' time between those who administer these three areas of education. When the Air Force Academy came into the picture, Dean McDermott wanted to see a much broader and more enticing academic program. It was known as the Academic Enrichment Program (AEP) and began early-on to be felt. The AEP created a new type of contention - one between the traditionalists and those who wanted something better.

Paul T. Ringenbach's book, Battling Tradition, and George F. Fagan's book, The Air Force Academy - An Illustrated History are good books that apparently explain most of what occurred for USAFA to evolve into what it has become. As cadets, we had no way of knowing most of what happened behind the scenes. However, we did know what happened where we were, and some of those things are not found in either of these two books.

The Association of Graduates of the U.S. Air Force Academy produce a quarterly magazine called Checkpoints. In June of 2010, an article appeared in Checkpoints that was a reprint of one in Flying Magazine in 1957. The article did not appear to be factually correct in many ways according to the memories of many who were there at the time.

The following is a longer version of an article that was written for publication in Checkpoints in an effort to correct the misleading version of Academy history. However, for various reasons, this article was not published - and rather than lose some history, it is being published by means of this website. It is meant to show what actually happened to create the improved academic programs in service academies, allowing them to rival some of the best civilian universities. It is also meant as a tribute General Robert F. McDermott. Those quoted and otherwise mentioned are members of the Class of 1960.


by members of the Class of 1960,
U.S. Air Force Academy

In the June 2010 issue of Checkpoints is a reprinted article, The Devil is an ATO. It was written by Alice Fuchs and was first published by Flying Magazine. Among other things in the article, the words "there are no electives [at USAFA] during the first three years" is misleading even though the article was first published in 1957, two years after the Class of '59 entered the Academy. What follows shows what academic opportunities were actually available at USAFA during those early years and how they led to better academic programs for our service academies.

As no record seems to exist of some of the happenings mentioned, memory is the only bridge we have to some parts of the past. The time taken to contact and interview everyone would have been excessive, so this is a sampling taken from the memories of those who were available and willing to provide the information. Our apologies if some of the memories appear to be incorrect or if something important was left out. In at least one case, when the transcript was consulted and when the semester hours for extra courses were subtracted from the total, it showed that the number of compulsory semester hours for a member of the Class of '60 was approximately 172. However, course load per semester is difficult to compute from the transcripts because some credits were for courses or field trips taken during the summers, and the courses differed from one cadet to another.

Like most of us, Chuck Diver had some difficulty with all the details, but he said that he does remember that [prior to 1961] Canoe U [Annapolis] and Hudson High [West Point] were very close to losing their accreditation... because they were teaching too many "pipe fitting" courses and did not have enough academics in their curricula.
      He went on to say There are a lot of things I don't remember that were brought up in [Alice Fuch's] article: Patrick Hall, don't know it, never heard of it; much, if not all of the jargon at the dining hall; the bugler must have retired the first year, since I don't remember his playing ten times a day for a class formation, but maybe "he" did.
      The only elective I remember was in
[our] senior year, and that was what language do you want to learn. There were other courses for "bright" students, advanced/accelerated math for one, but they were not electives - you were invited to take them.
      I also remember that if we had three more hours in a PE type course, we all could get a major in Physical Education. Could have been a rumor... I think Ms Alice Fuchs was attempting to get published, but having been there, separating fact from fiction is fairly easy for me.

From Dick Sexton: If I remember correctly the only way we could take enrichment courses was to "overload" - which I did the last two years - or to validate a course and take an enrichment course in its place - I never validated any courses.
      I very much enjoyed the enrichment courses that I took. I think they gave me a much broader program than just the core program.
      I don't remember how many courses I took or if they would have qualified for a major. As I recall, we did not have any majors. My diploma just says "bachelor of science." I think that a later transcript had "bachelor of science in military studies."
      I have no idea what happened to the "enrichment program." I do know that now there are a wide variety of enrichment courses and majors available to the cadets that we never had.

Although a service academy education has several attractions, the lure of a good academic education attracts more young men than the promise of playing on intercollegiate athletic teams, learning to march, or enduring white-glove inspections. At the time USAFA was created, the older service academies were steeped in academic tradition that tended to lessen any possibility of higher-level mental growth. Their rigid academic program often included subject material that was redundant for many incoming cadets or midshipmen who had previous college credits or material learned from previous occupations or hobbies. It was time to move forward academically and some of the more influential men in the Air Force realized this.

Paul T. Ringenbach wrote Battling Tradition, a comprehensive history of Robert F. McDermott and "Shaping the U.S. Air Force Academy." For the most part it backs up the memories found in this article and is well worth reading. Brigadier General Robert T. McDermott, who was a colonel during the early years of the the academy, was perhaps the most influential of USAFA's Founding Fathers at that time. As the Dean of Faculty, he wanted us to have as much knowledge at our command as possible - and the reasoning ability to use that knowledge. Most of us who learned from the Dean and his faculty appreciated him because he was so interested in fulfilling our academic needs. When he asked us to do our best, we did so willingly.

The class of '60 arrived at the Academy, a year after it had begun to function. At that time several policies had already been implemented that were designed to place us in groups according to our academic capabilities and needs. The Classes of '59 and '60 had been chosen initially by political means, with the exception of the sons of medal of honor winners. Each state was allowed a certain quota according to their number of congressional representatives and senators. Once chosen, those within each state had competed with one another for entry into the Academy. This meant that the test scores from the entry exams could be used to place the new cadets into categories within each subject being taught. For example, some were chosen to be in advanced English rather than the standard English classes. In math, according to Bill Hodson, there were standard, intermediate, and advanced categories. As he recalls, the standard math people took four semesters to complete the usual math program, the intermediate people took three semesters, and the adanced math people took only two semesters. Not all subjects were handled in this manner, but some were - and that left room for some cadets to take more advanced courses in place of those they would otherwise have been forced to repeat. The cadets were divided into sections for each subject being taught according to their grades. The first section was composed of those with the highest grades, those in the second section were those with the next highest grades, etc. This system allowed those who were capable of learning a given subject more quickly or more thoroughly to move along with others like them, and allowed those who were less capable to be with those who needed more instruction.

Bob Odenweller remembers "validating" the whole fourth-class year by passing the final exams given to the class of '59 - and this was in 1956. In the fall of 1957, a program was started by the Dean in which a cadet could validate a course and then take another in its place. For example, a cadet might be able to read enough books to validate a prescribed history course. According to Bill Carnegie, he and Alex Zimmerman did this. Bill was one of the youngest of the class of '60 and had no prior college, but he graduated with 203 semester hours of credit. Alex Zimmerman became the Class of '60 valedictorian.

From a cadet's letter home dated 12 March 1958, We were briefed today on the new curriculum of the academy. As you know, the first few classes were experimental and there has been some dissatisfaction regarding the uselessness of some courses and the turnouts in these courses (tennis for instance). Anyway, everything is switched around and it looks like I'll graduate with more courses and harder ones under my belt... The change is a great improvement in my opinion... The foregoing was partly a reference to a new option that is remembered as starting in the fall of 1958, in which eight or more cadets could petition to have a course provided for them that was not on the menu. One of the electives which are on Lew Price's transcript was the result of petitioning by a number of cadets to have a new course taught. According to the transcript it was taught in the fall of 1958, and Lew remembers that this was the first opportunity given to take that course. Others queried did not mention by year when their electives under this option began, but some said that it started upon moving to the new site - which would have been the fall of 1958. The Academic Department was so dedicated to this improvement that in one case which Frank Mayberry remembers, ten cadets petitioned when only five at time could attend due to scheduling problems - and two times were provided for the subject to be taught in order to accommodate the cadets.

The administrators at West Point and Annapolis wanted to keep their traditional academic programs, and by 1958 Dean McDermott was getting flak about USAFA's more advanced program. Ron Deep vaguely recalls the first meeting with the Class of '60 about this problem. Other members of the Class of '60 remember having conversations about it. According to Lew Price, the Dean (then a Colonel) called the Class of '60 together in an auditorium at the old site after the class had two years of academy instruction. The Dean stated that those in charge at West Point and Annapolis had gone to members of Congress to protest the academic enrichment program at USAFA. At the time, USAFA was not an accredited institution of learning, and there was pressure to have its academic program conform to those of the older academies. To counter this pressure, the Dean asked the Class to do its best in some examinations in which the Class of '60, with only two years of academy instruction, would be measured against the graduating classes at the older academies. Ed Leonard remembers that exams were given to both the Classes of '60 and '59 within almost the same time frame.

J.T. Smith remembers taking the early tests during our third-class year while still at Lowry [this would have been the late spring or the summer of 1958]. As I recall, we did quite well on them, and the accreditation before the '59s graduation would tend to support that result. Whether those data were used for some other purpose I can't say. I have no specific memory of there being electives per se, but I do remember there being an option to "overload" beyond the standard number of credit hours for those with good academic standing.

Lew Price remembers vividly that after the early tests were taken by the Class of '60, the Dean called another meeting for the class in which he stated how pleased he was at the results. No one from West Point had scores as high as those of the Class of '60, and only two from Annapolis had scores within the Class of '60's lower quarter. The Dean also said that the congressmen had decided to let USAFA's enrichment program continue for the time being.

Ringenbach, in his book, states that the Class of '60, in June of 1958, took "Sequential Tests of Educational Progress" administered by the Educational Testing Service of Princeton. Ringenbach says that sophomores from 73 selected colleges and universities took the test (technically, at this time the cadets were juniors, having just completed their sophomore year). According to Ringenbach, the average Air Force cadet scored in the top 8 percent in math, science and social studies, the top 15 percent in reading, and the top 25 percent in writing.

Later, in one of Lew Price's letters dated 14 May 1960, we see the following. The dean gave us a talk this morning (pep talk) on some college graduate exams that we have to take (six hours worth) today and tomorrow. The Class of '59 was second out of all the colleges in the nation (including MIT and Cal Tech) after only three and one half years, and the dean expects our class to be first after four years and the benefit of the overloads we were allowed to take that the other class couldn't always take.
      He also said that the '59 graduate students have proven superior to the graduate students of both MIT and Cal Tech (the other two academies aren't even in the same class) and are getting a reputation for their tremendous background in their subjects and their academic brilliance. The instructors at MIT and Cal Tech are the ones who have been claiming this is so.

The foregoing would mean that the Class of '59 took their Graduate Record Examinations (GRE's) at the end of 1958 - about four to six months after the Class of '60 took their first tests. Gary Gulbransen's transcript shows 14 May 1960 as the date the Class of '60 took their GREs.

Ringenbach states that the Class of '59 took GREs in December of 1958. He does not mention that those from the 20 other institutions who took the same GREs, took them after a full four years at their colleges or universities. Usually, GREs are taken after graduation which is why they are called "Graduate" Record Exams. In this case, it was desired that the first class to graduate from USAFA be given at graduation a Bachelor of Science degree from an accredited institution of learning. Therefore, early tests were needed and it was a great favor that the institutions of the control group went along with USAFA's needs. According to Ringenbach, the results of the GREs taken in December 1958 showed the average cadet in the Class of '59 surpassing 83 percent of the control group in natural sciences, 82 percent in social sciences, an 69 percent in humanities.

According to Lew Price, There was another meeting called by the Dean in which he congratulated the Class of '60 for their GRE results. I may be wrong about the exact numbers given, but as I recall, the highest 200 test scores of those from all three academies included 185 from those of us at USAFA. This was not as good for USAFA as were the results of the tests taken two years earlier, but it wasn't bad either. The Dean went on to say that the shoe was now on the other foot. Congress was pressuring the older academies to update their academic programs.

The controversy regarding traditional academic programs versus enriched academic programs that caused friction between those in charge of the older service academies' and Dean McDermott was not mentioned in any way by Ringenbach. Nor did he mention any four-year cadet or midshipman taking the same tests in June of 1958. According to Ringenbach, those tested then were all "Sophomores". If we assume that he meant those who had completed only two years of college work, then a stronger showing at that time against the older academies makes more sense. It is possible that the type of tests was changed between Dean McDermott's first and second meetings with the Class of '60 in 1958.

Chuck Diver remembers us taking the certification exams for Northeast Association of Colleges and Universities (or some very similar title) for accreditation as a four year institution, even before we had graduated a class. And bye the bye, getting the accreditation before graduating a class, a first if I remember correctly.

Apparently, the Dean had more than accreditation alone on his mind. Ringenbach did mention that within the Academy faculty there were those who believed strongly on the traditional model for service academy academic programs. At one point, Dean McDermott answered their objections to his new philosophy with a letter to them explaining his views.

Jock Schwank found that majors supposedly came to USAFA's academic program in 1964, according to at least one Academy history book. This is also misleading. Ben Furuta was able to participate in [the enrichment program] starting in our 3rd class year [1957] ...I was able to take extra courses in the sciences. I took a number of math and science courses labeled as accelerated and actually had three semester courses for physics versus the regular two during that year. Ben graduated with a "Major in Engineering Sciences" on his transcript. Ben is not sure, but he was called in to talk about going into accelerated subjects and believes he was chosen because he did very well in calculus during his dooley year.

Denis Walsh graduated in 1960 with a "Major in Engineering Sciences." Denis remembers that he was not alone in graduating with a major. A few years after graduation, Phil Meinhardt petitioned to be awarded a major in General Engineering and it was granted (the courses taken by the early classes were essentially the same as those taken when engineering majors were routinely given later on). When Lew Price was interviewed by Pacific Telephone, his transcripts were treated as a major in General Engineering. Quotes from other graduates follow.

Leon Goodson: I graduated with a lot more courses -- most advanced -- under my belt than the standard. I believe the standard was 180 [it was actually less] semester hours, evenly divided between sciences and humanities. I believe my transcript reflected 243 semester hours as I routinely carried 30 hours per semester. It was sufficient that when my transcript was evaluated at the University of Heidelberg which I attended on an Olmsted Scholarship, I was allowed to enter directly into a doctoral program in Theoretical Astrophysics, and earned my PhD in 2 years, three months. Leon went on to say he earned two majors from the Academy: I believe one was called "Engineering Sciences" and the other "Basic Sciences" or some such.

Norm Haller: I really don't recall much about the enrichment program ... I was a Distinguished Graduate and did have a major in Basic Science, but whether from that program or something else I cannot say. I also received a pre-graduation letter from Archie Higdon asking if I was interested in coming back as an instructor ... I was, and later tried to do it, but AF personnel said no (not enough flying time).

Doug Rekenthaler: I graduated with something like 190 semester hours, having taken all of the advanced tech, math, chem, science, and engineering courses. He believes he was credited with a major in "Engineering Sciences."

Frank Mayberry: Since the article was published in 1957, it was probably before... we arrived... I know there were no electives for the first year, but there were opportunities to take "advanced" courses. Perhaps it was the third year before we had access to electives. Frank graduated with 204 semester hours of credit.

Mike Loh: MacD's Academic Enrichment Program [AEP] was the attempt to offer courses beyond the core curriculum eventually leading to a major at graduation in various fields. This initiative was breaking new ground since neither West Point or Annapolis offered additional courses that could lead to a major.   I took full advantage of the AEP by taking additional courses in general engineering such as advanced mechanics, EE courses, aero courses, nuclear physics and nuclear engineering, and advanced math.   This allowed me to graduate with a major in "Engineering Sciences."
      I was one of the first cadets to avail myself of the program. I took all the extra courses I could in order to qualify for a full major at graduation. So, I was a big supporter of the program. It turned out very beneficial in my career. I was accepted to the master's program at MIT twelve years after graduation and I did not have to take any undergraduate refresher or make-up courses to qualify. I was also accepted at Princeton and Cal Tech, but chose MIT. I was able to get my master's degree in aero in 15 months - two graduate courses in the summer of 1972, a full course load in the academic year 1972-73, and completion of my master's thesis in the summer of 1973. I could not have done it without the extra courses and major I received at USAFA.
      I do not recall any disagreements, but I do recall that Mac D's majors' program was controversial because it was a new initiative for service academies.   I do recall a meeting with either the Commandant or General McDermott, or both, about this subject. As I recall it, the meeting centered around the allocation of a cadet's time. There were grumbles from the Commandant's side that McDermott's over emphasis on academics was cutting into the Commandant's time for military training. The debate centered on time allocation, not the goodness of the AEP or the goodness of achieving a major at graduation.
      I do not recall any specific actions to preserve
[AEP]. The AEP continued to grow and thrive. Many more majors were added each year after we graduated. The program flourished despite the naysayers.

Joe Higgins: I think I backed into the program since we were offered the opportunity at the beginning of 4th class year to "validate" courses by taking exams on subjects we thought we could pass. I wasn't a whiz in math and thought it would be nice to lighten my future class load by getting some courses out of the way and having more time to concentrate on math. (It didn't work out that way as you will see in subsequent answers.) As a product of a good New York state public school system, I took exams in English and U.S. history. Passing the special English exam earned me 6 semester credit hours for English 101 and 102 - Communication Skills and Introduction to Literature. Passing the U.S. history special exam earned me 3 semester credit hours for History 392 - U.S. History.
      So I accelerated my English courses by a year, taking English 205 - Masterworks of Western Literature through the Renaissance, Advanced Writing and Speaking - and English 206 - Literary Masterworks, Shakespeare through Renaissance Poets, and Composition - in the fourth class year. Third class year I took English 305 - Masterworks of Western Literature, 18th and 19th Century - and English 306 - Masterworks of Western Literature, 20th Century. Then the fun, literally, started. In second class year I took English 405 and 406, Introduction to Fine Arts, which I think were "made up" courses, since I don't recall anyone else in the fine arts "classes". I remember reviewing masterwork paintings and doing oil paintings as class assignments. I also remember reading biographies of some of the great early composers and having assignments at the Academy library to listen to symphonies, concertos and operas. The library had a great sound system, with a bank of speakers covering one wall. So here I was really enjoying painting and listening to music, all for credit. First class year I took English 353 - Shakespeare - and English 456 - Great Books.
      I have a Bachelor of Science in Engineering Sciences with a Major in English on my transcript.
      I recall most the discussions on why the Academy curriculum should be slanted more to the liberal arts than were those of the other academies.

Bob Odenweller: First of all, as I remember it, the basic baccalaureate degree had no electives except for the language taken in the first-class year. That may be what [Fuchs] was referring to. I don't know of any of our classmates who settled on that Spartan academic route. I was one of the few who "validated" the fourth-class year by taking the final exams given to the 59ers in each of the basic classes in the curriculum. This option was open to those who had taken them at an accredited college or university and gave full credit for them if a passing grade was reached on the firsties' finals. Since many of us (about 75 percent) had some prior college experience, I'd think that most availed themselves of this boost.
      Then there were the accelerated sections. I was in each of them, as far as I can recall. They covered the entire semester's course material in a matter of a little more than a month, after which we got a lot of extra material. I can recall getting Statistics and Probability in one math year and going all the way to Differential Equations with Engineering Applications in my third-class year. That was pushing my luck a bit, but it was the highest level offered at the time. When they dreamed up number theory and a bunch of others for the next year I decided I'd pushed my luck far enough and to skip it. The plan was that we could start in the accelerated sections, but if we couldn't keep up, we could drop back to the regular sections for the remainder of the course. There was obviously no mobility in the other direction.
      The basic baccalaureate degree required 123 semester hours. I accumulated 186.5 if I recall correctly. Some of our classmates decided to work for advanced degrees. Indeed, some had already graduated from a university and had started all over with the rest of us. I recall being told that USAFA approached the right people (Congress?) and asked if we could have masters degrees and/or doctorates within four years for those who met the requirements under our program, and we were told "not until USMA, USNA, and USCGA can catch up.
      Our classmates who did qualify built up their qualifications by extra study, working with a mentor/advisor for thesis/dissertation, and then went to a participating university (Caltech, MIT, Yale, etc.) for about a month to complete the "off-site" requirements. That was a clever way of getting aroung the ban.
      Since the program was written in 1957, it had input from various individuals at the time, and some of the "maturity" of the academic program may not have been conveyed then. Certainly the enriched/accelerated sections were in full operation then. I
[have] unease in the implied "directed training" [in the article in Checkpoints] and am equally sure that it was nothing as obvious as that.
      You may be interested to note that I had an interesting part to play later on. My step-father was the former professor of chemistry and physics at USMA, retiring as a BG. His successor was given the job of re-engineering the USMA curriculum to match ours. He and I sat in his quarters at West Point (as arranged by my dad) for a full day, he taking copious notes as I related the various points of interest in our advanced program. In a way, I may have been responsible for some of their break from the old tradition of the "basic baccalaureate degree" with only a language choice, and into a more modern approach to education.
      My memory was thrown together quickly and I haven't had a chance to review it, so my apologies if there are any mistakes.

The Class of '59 had provided the means to show academic excellence for USAFA, and in the spring of 1959 the North Central Association's requirements for accreditation were met, allowing the first class to graduate from a fully accredited institution. Colonel McDermott became Brigadier General McDermott in 1960.

Most of us in the Class of 1960 lost touch once we had graduated, and were not aware of any further mention of changing academic policies except for occasional references to certain majors presented at USAFA. This would imply that academic policy was improving beyond the wildest speculations of the old Army and Navy types. There were theories that were presented as to the "real" reasons for the exam results of 1958 and 1960. One was that the Classes of 1959 and 1960 were small (about 300 each before attrition set in) and chosen by competition rather than through political appointments - which might make them more capable on average than the classes at the other academies. However, there should have been the "cream" of the larger classes at West Point and Annapolis that would have scored within USAFA's ranks. There was also a theory that the IQs of the USAFA classes were much higher - but if this were ever proven, General McDermott never mentioned it.

We should give General McDermott our heartfelt thanks (even though he is no longer with us) for a system that has contributed to USAFA being an academy of overall superior quality, producing officers who have continued to make the Air Force a superior service. At the Academy, General McDermott was revered by the cadets for his intellect and straightforward generosity. After retiring from the Air Force and in his capacity with USAA, he was still giving.

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