An educator of a new generation
A/SLt 24498 Noelani Shore (RMC 2009)
After 24 years at the Royal Military College, Dr. Joel Sokolsky has had the opportunity to teach and influence countless cadets and students.
“I started as a professor in Political Science. I taught mainly Canadian and American Foreign Defence Policy,” he said.
Dr. Sokolsky served as Head of the Department of Politics and Economics before becoming of Dean of Arts. He has been the Principal since August 2008.
“My primary responsibility is managing the academic program and the university as a university within Canada. I need to answer the questions about the curriculum, fostering research, and meeting the educational needs of the armed forces,” he said.
The Principal’s own academic background is quite extensive.
“I took an Honours Bachelor in Political Science at the University of Toronto, a Masters in International Relations at the John’s Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, and a PhD in Political Science from Harvard,” he explained.
When Dr. Sokolsky began teaching in 1986, he found RMC, from the standpoint as an educator, a very satisfying place to work.
“I enjoyed teaching the students, as they are committed and focused, and I’ve worked with great colleagues over the years, as they are both dedicated teachers and researchers,” he said. Indeed, in is view a commitment to teaching goes hand-in-hand with active scholarship since faculty who are enthusiastic about their disciplines and are committed to the pursuit of knowledge are invariably inspiring teachers. This is what we have at RMC.
Dr. Sokolsky particularly enjoyed seeing RMC cadets succeeding in international competitions like Model NATO and the Sanremo International Humanitarian Law competition.
“When I was Dean of Arts, I got the participation going in these things, and it was very satisfying seeing the students excel in these competitions. It wasn’t difficult to garner interest, but the balancing was an issue,” he explained. “You have cadets who also have obligations here.”
In his opinion, the students at RMC stand up very well against international opponents.
“In addition to the quality in the academics, I think RMC fosters the sort of leadership skills that will serve you well. Even in an academic setting, the ability to speak well and present yourself is important. Also, if you’re going on in academia, it requires a large measure of self-discipline and organization. The irony is that academia is an unstructured environment, whereas the military is structured, but the talents that you pick up for organization and being able to discipline yourself serve you well in an unstructured academic environment,” he said. “In that sense, I think anyone coming out of RMC, if they choose to go into an academic career, carry the skills that are necessary. The other thing is that RMC gives you a broad education, regardless of the discipline that you go into; eventually, that sort of education is very useful.”
The curriculum offered at RMC is demanding, but it prepares the officer cadets for their careers in the military.
“It’s a demanding program, but not as demanding as things you’ll face, so it’s a good preparation for life. It’s important for officer professional military education, although the cadets may only realize this in hindsight,” he said.
To be an officer in the armed forces, you have to be prepared for a profession which includes life-long learning. Many people outside the military may not realize that an officer moving through the ranks is not just being promoted, but they have to take courses, and it’s a continual learning experience.
“Starting out here at RMC, which is part of officer professional development in the CF, gets them ready for a career which is going to involve continual learning. I don’t know if the cadets appreciate this now, but if you go to the Staff College in Toronto where officers are competitively selected, who are in line for higher ranks, the work demands on them, academically, are quite high, especially if they’re taking one of the Master’s degrees we offer there,” he said. “So I think it’s important that students realize that RMC is not the end; rather, it’s just the beginning of their professional military education, and if they intend a career in the armed forces, that that’s something that’s going to be with them all the time.”
The broad education that students receive at RMC is rather unique. Not only do Engineers receive classes about social sciences and humanities, but the Arts students also get a background in physics, chemistry, and math.
“I think the broad education, and the requirement in particular that you have to take writing and reading in your first language, is important for students at RMC. The amount of history about Canada and its armed forces is part of that professional military education as well. The students also need to take a course in International Relations, because once you come here, you cease to be an observed of IR; you’re actually becoming a participant. Depending on your trade, you may find yourself on a ship in the Persian Gulf, or in a combat operation or in Afghanistan. So I think the education here helps to sensitize you to the role of the CF, globally,” he said. “The other thing we require here is the proficiency in a second language.There was a time when every degree required some sort of second language, but that has faded in most universities.”
According to Dr. Sokolsky, even if this structured approach to education weren’t producing junior officers, he would recommend this model for other universities.
“I think it delivers a more structured approach, but overall, even if this weren’t producing junior officers, I would recommend the model for university’s elsewhere. Some schools have it – not to the extent that we do – but there’s interest in the core curriculum. University should be a broadening experience, and at civilian university you focus on your major, and that’s perhaps all that you do, so in that sense, I think it’s a model that could be recommended for others.”
While the program is quite demanding, cadets, because of the nature of their obligation, do not have to work outside. Students attending other universities sometimes work 15-20 hours a week at a job that’s not connected with their studies in order to make ends meet.
“I think we do place a lot of demands on the cadets; on the other hand, everything that is asked of them is something that’s going to be useful for them in their military career. The military training, the discipline, and the requirements that cadets take a part in organizing themselves, are all things that help to familiarize them with the armed forces. Given the success rate that we have, I think the cadets have proven that they can master the program,” he said.
RMC is a unique institution because most universities in Canada are either provincial or even local, that is, the majority of students come from within a small area.
“If you look at our student body, it really is national. And there are few universities in Canada which can really claim that. The irony about RMC is that it’s the only military university, but it’s also one of the last bastions of what is truly, what used to be called, a liberal education,” he said. “It’s closer to a classical university education because of its broad scope, because it’s residential, and there are things like the athletic program. That’s what I find interesting. It’s hard for students to appreciate that, because nowadays, you go to a university with an intention to getting trained to getting a job. That’s just the reality we live in. But there are things to come to university to broaden your experience, which I think you do here, and in many cases, you only see it in retrospect, and this is the same for anyone going to university.”
As RMC is limited by bed space, it will always essentially be a small university. It is the class-size that helps RMC stand out as well.
“Given the low faculty to student ratio, the cadets here, whether they know it or not, get a lot of attention individually. Faculty go out of their way to make sure that people don’t fail. Depending where you are in at a university in Canada, that’s not always the case,” Dr. Sokolsky explained. “When you’re in a large urban university, like the University of Toronto, when you’re one of 20,000 undergraduates, that sort of personal attention won’t happen, as you can be almost anonymous. And so here, I think we operate more like a classic small university where the students really are the focus.”
The fact that RMC is largely residential creates a positive learning environment and university experience.
“A residential experience really allows you to take advantage of the curricula and the extra curricular activities that are afforded to you. Being in university is a special time in life that won’t be repeated, and I think the residential experience really is something that goes along with it,” he said.
While running this university within the Department of National Defence can be a challenge, Dr. Sokolsky feels that RMC offers a first-class education which prepares students for their military careers, for work in the private sector and government and for national and global citizenship.