West Point’s Tradition of the Goat: Or, Why Trump Just Handed Chase T. Miller a Bag of Cash
By Paul Dowling
“Everybody loves an underdog. The story of the Goat demonstrates that you don’t have to be an academic superstar in order to be successful or to make a difference. I think that military leadership and bravery and other qualities of that type are not necessarily learned in a classroom. Somebody who studies all the time, obeys all the rules, and gets good grades may not necessarily be a great leader of men and may not necessarily be someone who has the kind of decision making qualities that will lead to victory.” – Jason Zasky
Class Goat: A Special Recognition
On the morning of June 13, 2020, as Chase T. Miller’s name was called, in the midst of his West Point graduation ceremony, everything came to a complete standstill as his fellow cadets gave him a rousing cheer. At this point, Miller took leave of the procession and ascended a ramp to encounter the welcoming smile of President Donald Trump (standing in for the Dean of the Academic Board, Brigadier General Cindy Jebb) whose honor it was to bestow upon the graduate a brown bag filled with cash. For viewers without the requisite knowledge of West Point tradition, this singular event likely raised more than a few quizzical eyebrows among viewers, as Mr. Miller received the time-honored distinction of being publicly recognized as the Class Goat, the West Point student graduating last in his class.
A West Point Tradition
The West Point “Traditions” website says this about the Class Goat: “On graduation day, as cadets receive their diplomas by company and regiment in alphabetical order, one will get a resounding round of applause. At this point, the ceremony halts briefly and the Dean poses for a photo with a cadet before handing over a container holding about $1,000 (a tradition of collecting a dollar from each classmate started in the late 1960s). This is the Class Goat – the last person in the graduating class in order of merit.” Since the West Point Class of 2020 is comprised of 1107 members, Mr. Miller should have collected in the neighborhood of $1,100.
According to Dr. Steve Grove, West Point Historian, “the term ‘goat’ came into use in the 1880s. Prior to that, the lower standing members of the class were called ‘the immortals.’ Supposedly, one Spanish instructor who habitually taught the lower classes had a goatee. From his goatee, then, the cadets he taught became known as the ‘goats.’ It doesn’t hurt that the Navy mascot is a goat also [but only since 1893]. In the 1909 Howitzer, a goat is described as ‘a man who would have stood first if he had boned’ [i.e., studied hard].” Back when West Point cadets graduated in order of merit, the Class Goat was easily recognized since he literally stood at the very end of the line to receive his diploma.
A Special Club
The special Goat Club that Mr. Miller has joined is not without its famous members. Although the term “Class Goat” was not yet in vogue when George Armstrong Custer graduated from West Point in 1861, he was indeed the Class Goat of his day. Custer, who graduated dead last in his class, was a Civil War stand-out and a veteran of the Battle of Gettysburg, eventually rising to the wartime rank of Major General (although he would ultimately go down to defeat at the Battle of Little Bighorn). Also present at Gettysburg were 1846 Class Goat George Pickett, the Confederate officer who led Pickett’s Charge, as well as Pickett’s notable cousin Henry Heth (pronounced “heeth”), the 1847 Class Goat.
There are seemingly two kinds of Class Goat: there is the Goat that finds the course of study at West Point beyond challenging but wins out in the end due to sheer tenacity; and there is the Goat whose excessive engagement in extracurricular activities diminishes study time to the point of preventing the attainment of high scores. Both personality types are to be admired, the first one revealing the character trait of true grit and the second demonstrating the personal capacity to juggle many projects at once.
Surviving Cancel Culture
Educational reformers, in an early attempt at cancel culture, sought to stop the United States Military Academy from recognizing the Class Goat by officially banning the practice back in 1978. Thus, the tradition of having cadets graduate in order of class rank had to be abandoned. But tradition dies hard at West Point, where the cadets have always been able to discover in advance who the Class Goat is, regardless of any official policy. The only difference is that the raucous applause that erupts upon the calling of the name of the Class Goat can now occur at any time during the graduating ceremony.
Chase T. Miller
It is this author’s opinion that Mr. Chase T. Miller’s future success will depend more upon his adaptability to real-world situations and less upon his formal class rank at West Point. 2020’s last-place cadet from West Point is likely better trained for success than almost any Ivy League valedictorian, since he probably possesses more mental toughness, physical stamina, and stalwart dependability than they do. Also, Mr. Miller has proven he has the ability to set difficult goals, to bone up on his course of study enough to pass muster, and to execute a challenging plan of action to its ultimate conclusion. On the joyous occasion of Chase Miller’s graduation, every witness to his culminating achievement (watch the video from 1:41:15 to 1:42:15) surely wishes him nothing but the best. So, heartfelt congratulations go out to Mr. Chase T. Miller!