Cadets and Cultural Awareness: A Knowledge Outcome

Capt. Jamie Riddle, 52nd Flying Training Squadron instructor pilot, and an Iraqi Flight Instructor School student engage in conversation prior to a recent sortie here. The Iraqi air force has continued rebuilding efforts to become a credible and capable military entity by recently establishing the Flight Instructor School (FIS) for Iraqi pilots. The school puts the most experienced of Iraq’s operational pilots into the classroom and cockpit at the Iraqi Flying Training Wing here in an effort to teach the fundamentals of flight instruction. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jeffrey Allen)

Capt. Jamie Riddle and an Iraqi Flight Instructor School student walk to the flightline before a mission May 25, 2008, at Kirkuk Regional Air Base, Iraq. Learning about Middle Eastern cultures helps U.S. Air Force Academy cadets understand how cultural differences affect deployed operations. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Jeffrey Allen)

U.S. Air Force Academy Outcomes

U.S. Air Force Academy Outcomes

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- It was very puzzling. Despite covering the topic through lecture and discussion in my History 101 (Modern World History) course, students were still not getting it. During the Fall 2008 semester, when it came time to test their knowledge on the subject during a graded review, 30 percent of them could not tell the difference between Sunni and Shi'ite beliefs in the Islamic religion. This semester, I decided to change my teaching approach to the topic. 

Instead of relying on lecture and a brief class discussion, I asked for volunteers in the class to help with a special assignment. I selected two students to present separate briefings. One student's presentation was on the beliefs of Sunni Muslims, and the other discussed the beliefs of Shi'ite Muslims and how they differed in their approach toward a successor for the Caliph. 

Following the presentations, I opened the floor for any questions to the students making the presentations. Additionally, at the end of the class, I had all students write a one-paragraph summary of the major differences between the Sunni and Shi'ite beliefs. The end result when it came time for the Spring 2009 Graded Review: a 97-percent pass rate on the same question assessed the semester before that only had a 70-percent pass rate. It may have taken more time from the curriculum to emphasize this aspect of Islamic culture, but it was worth it. 

Why is it important to learn the difference between Sunnis and Shi'ites in the Islamic world? Does it really matter to Air Force Academy cadets? 

In actuality, it is just one aspect of the many knowledge challenges facing our cadets in today's multinational operations environment. It is critical that officers in today's international environment understand how cultural factors influence the decisions made in current and future war-fighting domains. 

Understanding civic, cultural and international environments, one of the Academy's six Knowledge Outcomes, provides our cadets a comprehend the historical and current perspective of leadership, cultures and traditions, as well as global issues and consequences in the context of the humanities and social sciences. 

By attending classes from the Academy's core curriculum that emphasize history, language studies, economics, literature, ethics and geopolitics, cadets appreciate how different languages, religions, cultures and institutions, balanced by ethical principles and Air Force core values, affect deployment operations. This appreciation, combined with a comprehension of how historical events have produced today's world in terms of diffusion and interaction among nations, people, groups and ideas is critical to their personal growth as leaders and officers of character. 

Understanding the difference between Sunni and Shi'ite beliefs may seem like a minor achievement for our cadets. Doing so, however, reinforces the fostering of a healthy command and work environment that increases the effectiveness and efficiency of both joint and multinational operations. 

Armed with the knowledge of civic, cultural and international environments, Academy graduates will fully contribute to the full spectrum of missions requiring them to fly and fight in air, space and cyberspace environments for the defense of the United States of America and its global interests.