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08 September 2008

Correlation of academic performance to professional success in intelligence studies education

Courtesy of Trinity University’s Intelligence Center (a program which few may recall pre-dates the success brought by the more prominent IC CAE now hosted there) comes a piece which surfaces the fascinating history of the less distinguished of the graduates from one of the most elite institutions in the country, the US Naval Academy.

These are stories well worth the read, and we are grateful to the good doctor for recounting them. And while we remain strictly and professionally apolitical as to their import in the current election cycle, we however would ponder the perhaps unintended parallels one might draw regarding the students emerging from the intelligence studies academia itself. In this new enterprise, it has been all too easy to focus on the bright young things and rising stars. But is success in the cloistered ivory tower really a determinant of future excellence in a profession which has grown increasingly distant from the sterile models and dated theories too often propounded by those outside the walls of the vault?

This is a question which truly remains unanswered. There simply has not been a sufficient sample size across an adequate longitudinal depth given the emergent dynamics of the field. Further, the unsettled nature of the generally accepted unclassified curriculum has also worked against such observations. A number of institutions once focused tightly on producing graduates capable of answering the requirements of the working intelligence professional now seem to be increasingly at variance from the community’s needs, while a number of newer schools are simply untested. While we have great hope that from out of this current state the engine of creative destruction will drive new and better approaches, we have yet to see but faint indicators of regeneration.

However, while the plural of anecdote is not data, we do have a few observations that might be called out for future study against the fullness of time. For example, Trinity’s program itself has produced more than its share of intelligence scholars – including those recently minted undergraduates accepted directly into further academic studies at the National Defense Intelligence College, a singular and rare achievement which is clearly indicative of great potential. And the older program at Mercyhurst has produced a number of alumni who were brought into the community even in the leanest years of the hiring freeze by virtue of exemptions granted to those with exceptional academic records.

Yet the concept resonates with the experiences we have seen in others. There have been the equivalent of the anchormen and goats from those institutions (and others in the intelligence studies field) over the years, and many not by virtue of insufficient talent but rather the inevitable result of efforts focused more intently outward against real world objectives vice the acknowledged artificial standards of the classroom. The challenge, of course, lies in distinguishing between those individuals and their counterparts who truly lacked the preparation, initiative, and raw intellect to perform in this demanding field. At the same time, the task is not really easier for those who face the disappointment of having invested in a promising and high scoring young candidate only to find that the professors’ pet cannot perform under real world pressures where the right answer is not simply repeating a canned school solution.

We would daresay the best means of addressing this dilemma is to ensure that the intelligence studies academia always tests its candidates in conditions which mirror as closely as is possible stressors found in the professional intelligence environment. It is for this reason that we emphasize the need for an intelligence crucible when cultivating new professionals.

Regrettably, it appears that this is an idea which has not been popular as of late, especially as class sizes balloon and attrition rates shrink at many programs. While this may be profitable for the institutions concerned, it may prove to be a disservice not only to the agencies and firms which hire untested candidates but equally so to the candidates themselves. Failure in the classroom, even one which may cause an individual to re-assess the course of their future professional options, is far easier than dramatic self-destruction in the face of a burden the individual simply cannot carry. Unfortunately, this is a thing we have seen all too often – especially given the hiring surges of recent years.

While this is not a phenomenon unique to the intelligence profession, we think that it is indeed more pronounced. For this is a field of thinkers and of talkers, and therefore values these skills highly, as a result often seeing such competencies mirrored in the strong academic performers. Yet there is a greater gulf in this profession between the accomplishments of insight or communication, in contrast to the mimicry or sophistry which underlies some successful but otherwise hollow academics. The same can be said of some instructors in the field, as much as of the students. Indeed, one is often found at the root cause of the others.

Theory derived from lived experiences is all well and good, but validation is needed through more rigorous empirical research. That, we fear, will be a matter that must be left to the historians of the generation after next, for only then may the full measure of a cohort’s deeds be taken.

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