The United States Military Academy – also known as West Point – is an academic training institute for the grooming of cadets for the United States armed forces, and is the oldest continuously occupied military post in the country. It is located on 16,000 acres overlooking the Hudson River, about 50 miles north of New York City.
The United States Military Academy was conceived in 1802, with the aim to develop its own team of a technically sound workforce, in an attempt to eliminate completely America’s wartime reliance on foreign engineers and artillerists.
When this idea was put forward by General George Washington earlier, there wasn’t any provision in the U.S. Constitution that allowed for such an academy. But legislation signed by Thomas Jefferson removed the road block, and subsequently the academy became reality, in July 1802.
The USMA is located in a former Army fort, a site selected personally by Washington, which he considered the most strategic point, on the west bank of Hudson River. It is in fact his organizing of the army at West Point and the blockade of the Hudson that eventually prevented the British from gaining control of the fortress and the subsequent splitting of the colony in two.
It was Colonel Sylvanus Thayer – hailed as the "Father of the Military Academy" – who had upgraded the academic standards and inculcated a fresh spirit of military discipline and an emphasis on honorable conduct to the whole procedure.
During 1817-33, when he was the superintendent of USMA, he revamped the curriculum on a civil engineering background, in tune with the requirements of the day. Most of the civil construction, such as bridges and roads, in the first half century after the founding of the academy, were done mostly by USMA graduates.
During House debate in 1836 on appropriating money for the academy, then representative and later President Franklin Pierce protested the practice of allowing young men to receive a four-year college education at public expense and then serve only one year before resigning their commissions and returning to public life. In 1838, the obligation for subsequent service was extended from one year to four.
The USMA gained recognition and fame for the service of its graduates in the Indian and Mexican wars of mid-19th century. It is with bitter irony, however, that it came to pass that the same USMA graduates who worked together at one point, were pitted against each other in the American Civil War.
The advent of more technical schools all across U.S. in the post-Civil War period, enabled the USMA to widen its curriculum beyond a strict civil engineering focus. The curriculum underwent sweeping changes after World War I; a physical fitness regime and intramural athletics became a part of academic life at the academy.
After World War II, dramatic developments in science and technology, the increasing need to understand other cultures, and the rising level of general education in the army, made a revision of the curriculum a pressing need.
Today the syllabus is constantly revised, according to the current requirements and developments. The notable change that has been introduced over the years is having the option for cadets to graduate in any of the more than a dozen fields, which include a wide range of subjects from the humanities to sciences.
USMA was a men-only academy until the mid 1970s. The first women cadets were admitted to the academy, in 1976. The curriculum is the same for both the genders except that the physical aptitude standards for women are lower than that of men.
The academy curriculum of the USMA stresses four aspects – intellectual, physical, military, and moral-ethical – the developmental goals being addressed through a string of coordinated and integrated programs. The life of a cadet is demanding on campus but they have available recreational activities during their leisure time.
By the end of the fourth year, successful academy graduates are conferred a Bachelors of Science degree and commissioned as Second Lieutenants in the U.S. Army. The appointment mandates that graduates serve five years on active service in the army, followed by three years in the reserves. The USMA produces more than 900 graduates a year.