My Recurring Dream of the Air Force Academy and Why People Think the Current President is Correct
This is where I spent the first three years of my university education. It is called the Air Force Academy. Its purpose is to train young men and women to become officers in the U.S. Air Force. When I was a young person and they started recruiting me because I was a good student and played football, I somehow believed that if I went there I would be able to handle everything in life much better. I wanted to not be affected by criticism or be timid in life. I don’t know how I came up with this kind of imagination. It just looked like the place to give me that kind of confidence. Unfortunately or fortunately depending on the way you look at it, it didn’t work. The methodology of the military is that if you are in a higher rank you can criticize wildly and are expected to do so to the lower ranks. If you are of a lower rank, you are just supposed to obey and take it. Criticism of the lower ranks to the higher ranks is like a mortal sin. So after about 3 years of fighting with myself, I realized that I really didn’t want to have anything to do with that kind of system. I packed my bags and left.
Over the course of the last 40 years I continue to have occasional dreams of the Air Force Academy. In the dream I am the age I am currently going back there to try to graduate. Somewhere in the middle of the dream I realize that it is not the place for me and I have to figure out how to quit again. It is a stubborn recurring dream. It doesn’t want to go away. Last night I had it again so I decided to try to find out why. That is when I discovered the illusion that graduating from there was going to somehow magically make me overcome timidity and difficulty handling criticism. I am still holding onto the illusion that a military environment is the key to my transformation. I am actually pretty embarrassed to admit it. I could go on for a long time about why a military environment doesn’t work, but science has already done a pretty good job of proving why it is ineffective. The kind of environment that is conducive to change includes a high level of encouragement, frank and open consultations, respect for everyone’s role, and also respect for the authority. Criticism has consistently been shown to be the least effective method of change, yet most military organizations still cling to it, but only in one direction, downward on the chain of command. Effective organizations invite feedback from everyone.
I am slow to let go of the illusion despite the science. Why is that? Today I am letting it go.
The current president of the U.S. comes from a military school training and his method seems to be what they taught us at the Air Force Academy which is that it is OK and highly desirable for the positions of higher rank to criticize the lower rank, but not the other way around. If you give him feedback on his actions, like criticizing an officer in the military, it seems to be viewed as insubordination. This is the same thing that happens in so many families in the world. A father assumes the military authority that he can criticize at will and others have to do exactly as he demands. Feedback to him is insubordination. The real fear in the officer corps at the Air Force Academy was that maybe the feedback of the lower ranks was actually right. We were right when we gave them feedback on the haircut policy. The length of one’s hair had nothing to do with self-discipline as they claimed. So if they were wrong about that, what else were they wrong about. Stopping the feedback allows them to not have to face their own incompetence. They can make others look bad so they are not seen as incompetent.
Race is a perfect place where this kind of attitude comes into play. If you are of race that has traditionally been seen as higher and treated as a higher ranking race, you may have the tendency to see other races as insubordinate when they give feedback like taking a knee during the national anthem. This happens because you don’t want to be seen as incompetent. If you are of a superior rank, how could someone of a lower rank give accurate feedback that is actually true. If you accept the feedback, you accept the equality. If you accept the equality, you have to come to terms with your own incompetence.
The dream says that the illusion that the military way of doing things where the higher rank is allowed to criticize the lower rank, but not the other way around is a strategy that is ineffective because it doesn’t make people less timid or able to handle criticism better. It makes them more timid and less able to receive feedback. What works is encouragement, seeing the best in others and honoring it, not criticism. Encouragement is an effective change strategy because it builds the will to change the weaker parts. When you are confident in who you are already, you will be excited about developing those aspects of yourself that are not so strong. The meaning of the dream is that encouragement works.