Every May, close to a thousand cadets at West Point graduate as commissioned officers, raising their right hands to swear an oath that they will “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic,” and that they will “bear true faith and allegiance” to the same. These young men and women knowingly volunteer to enter a profession where they are required to fight, defend, and potentially die for their country—but most of them have never closely considered this “America” that they have sworn to defend with their lives.
In response to the 50th Anniversary of John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America (1962), we have organized a trip for cadets that attempts to retrace the spirit of his quest. Our journey, like his, is a search, even an odyssey, to discover what “home” is to an engaged citizen. The locus of our trip presents an occasion for our students to develop a deep understanding of what it means to be a nation. This is a chance for cadets to look at America through Steinbeck’s lens, but then to ask, “What is my America?” Their written answers to that question will serve as the substance for a book we plan to make available fifty years from the publication of Steinbeck’s own, which will simultaneously engage in a dialogue with Steinbeck while constructing the cadets’ own truths.
In Travels with Charley, Steinbeck wondered what the U.S. would look like in fifty years, but never could have imagined the globalization or the technological complexity that Americans negotiate today. He observed that people are generally opposed to change, but also recognized that resisting progress leads to bitterness; thus concluding that our energies are better spent on the joys of advancement. Army Research and Development Command (RDECOM) has graciously funded this trip, and by adding national research labs to the itinerary, we can now offer cadets the opportunity to contemplate a future beyond Steinbeck’s wildest imagination. As one of the participants, CDT Sherman Pruitt, Class of 2014, observed, “Steinbeck was right when he said that people are generally opposed to change, but he couldn't have predicted how quickly our generation would adapt to new advances in technology.” As CDT Pruitt continued, “I am excited to participate in a trip that allows us to visit with scientists and philosophers of today so that we can contemplate what the future holds.” Visits at several national laboratories around the United States will provide our students with a firsthand look into just how our national science labs envision the future.
Although we lack the time to retrace Steinbeck’s three month trip in the three weeks of our own, we are thematically recreating a significant portion to offer cadets the opportunity, like Steinbeck, to understand their country and determine their own place within it. Young, but independent thinkers, cadets are trained to analyze and reflect upon the world around them. Through reading and discussing Travels with Charley, and then capturing their responses, interpretations, and conversations with the Americans they meet in 2011, we offer them a trip of deep contemplation as well as discovery, where they will collect a lifetime of memories. However, in the end, this trip not only offers cadets an opportunity to discover America, it provides an opportunity for America to discover our cadets.
~ by Margaret Downs-Gamble & Shawn Neely