History of the Department of English and Philosophy

From its inception, the United States Military Academy has developed cadets through instruction in the humanities. The subjects of composition, literature, and moral philosophy were taught by various departments as far back as 1802. The current Department of English and Philosophy traces its origins to Sylvanus Thayer’s establishment of the professorship of History, Geography, and Ethics on April 14, 1818.  

English was formally introduced as a regular course for Fourth Class cadets in 1820. The 1840s witnessed the formation of the Departments of Ethics and of English Grammar. Fourth Class cadets received instruction in the fundamentals of composition and grammar, while First and Third Class cadets took courses in rhetoric, logic, moral philosophy, and ethics.  

In the 1850s, the Academy expanded the study of the humanities to include composition and literature. Around 1865 (records during the Civil War are incomplete), the Department of English Studies and Literature emerged, focusing on elocution, composition, and vocabulary recitation. The Department of Ethics was assimilated by the Department of Law and Literature. 

Following the end of the Civil War, studies in the humanities were discontinued entirely and did not reappear until 1877. In 1878, English coursework was incorporated into the Department of French, which became the Department of Modern Languages in 1882. 

English studies in 1902 taught Fourth Class cadets principles of clear writing and introduced Third Class cadets to British prose and poetry. First Class cadets received some instruction in ethics, but these classes were infrequent and conducted at the discretion of Academy leadership. In 1906, the Superintendent and the Board of Visitors endorsed a new Department of English and History, which was officially formed in 1908 and made permanent in 1910.   

Upon his appointment as Superintendent in 1919, Douglas MacArthur began a period of curriculum innovation based on his experiences during the First World War. He considered the humanities essential to educating cadets on the “mechanics of human feeling.” A broader education, he argued, would instill a “comprehensive grasp of world and national affairs.” The amount of time devoted to the study of English subjects doubled as a result. 

The Department of English was officially formed in 1926 with Colonel Lucius Holt as the head. His replacement, Chaplain (Colonel) Clayton Wheat, advocated for an adjustment to the Thayer Method in the humanities classroom that replaced the traditional modes of recitation and board work with dialogue and lecture.  

In 1976, the Secretary of the Army charged a committee led by Frank Borman (USMA 1950) to review the implementation of West Point’s Honor Code and the effectiveness of instruction in ethics and professionalism at the Academy. The Borman Commission recommended a comprehensive academic program in philosophy, ethics, and professional development. The Department of the Army subsequently directed the Academy to reintroduce its earlier courses in ethics and philosophy.

In 2009, the Department of English formally changed its name to the Department of English and Philosophy to properly recognize its responsibilities in both disciplines.

Today, the Department provides cadets who major in literature or philosophy a thorough introduction to these academic fields, while providing every cadet core instruction in composition, literature, and philosophy.