Our Naval Academy

I

IF there is any profession to-day that requires men of adaptability, of broad and accurate knowledge, men who are spiritually and mentally well disciplined, — cultured, if you please, — it is that of the naval officer. The naval officer probably must face in his career more trying, if not more delicate, situations, perform more varied duties, and adjust himself to more adverse circumstances than must almost anybody else. Besides being a sailor and a military leader, he must be an engineer, something of a scientist, lawyer, business man, educator; and, as passing events in Central America and the Far East indicate, he is frequently compelled to be a diplomat. His academic training, therefore, ought to be as broad and thorough as time and means allow, and the Naval Academy, which is his conduit into the service, should rank second to none as an educational institution.

It may be thought impertinent, perhaps, in the face of victorious elevens and boxing teams and flattering reports by visiting boards, to intimate that this is not the case; that the Naval Academy, our Naval Academy, in reality falls considerably short of being as great an educational force as we should like it to be. Such, however, must be the almost inevitable conclusion of anybody who breathes its atmosphere long enough to become tolerably familiar with its government and its methods — provided that he be not burdened with too much Alma Materism or blinded by the glitter of the dress parade.

I have known the Naval Academy for over twenty years. I have seen it grow from an institution of five or six hundred students to its present enrollment of over sixteen hundred. I have watched its transformation from a group of old-fashioned buildings, yet marked by a certain individuality and classic beauty, to its present rather garish magnificence. For more than two decades I have watched our Academy mould the pick of American youth from sometimes puny, undeveloped boys into vigorous, stalwart men; from high-minded, clean boys into still higher-minded, cleaner men; and, I regret to say it, from plain democratic youths into men touched by the blight of snobbery. What I have to say, therefore, about the Naval Academy is not based on hearsay, but on long experience. It will not be eulogistic in tone, yet I hope that it will not be regarded as mere destructive criticism. But there are certain aspects of this great national school, on which we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, which are certainly open to animadversion, and some of these aspects I mean to mention.

When one considers the fact that the administrative head of the Academy changes normally every two years, and that with the change comes a greater or less shifting about of the teaching staff, one cannot help wondering how the school functions as well as it does, or whether it might not function a good deal better if the faculty were more stable. Think of the effect of such a system on any one of our universities. Approximately every two years a new superintendent with a different personality and different ideas takes charge. With him come new heads of departments, a new commandant to enforce the discipline, and a fresh lot of younger officers to carry on much of the classroom work. These officers are not selected because they have any peculiar fitness for teaching: most of them have not looked for years at the subjects which they are expected to teach; many in consequence have rather less knowledge of those subjects than they amassed while midshipmen; and, what perhaps is worse, many find the work extremely distasteful. It would seem as if no school could properly carry on educational work under this system.

In considering this matter, however, it is well to notice that a fair proportion of the teaching staff is composed of civilians, graduates of some of our best universities, who like the work and have special adaptation and training for it. These men carry on some real educational work there and bring to the midshipmen a certain amount of what may loosely be termed university culture. But they are about the only members of the faculty who really attempt to do any effective teaching. The young officer-teachers, it is true, conduct recitations, but with few glittering exceptions they seem to make little effort to present their subjects to their students or to clarify knotty points in them. Then, too, it is well to know that the officers in charge of the station make no pretense about the matter, but very frankly will tell you that the Academy is not, and does not pretend to be, an educational institution; that it is merely a training school where boys are put through a ‘course of sprouts’ to make them able to command men and ships. I have had them tell me that again and again. A commander in the navy put it to me this way once; ‘These boys don’t need poetry here; they need power.’ And a recent superintendent is reported to have said: ‘ What the midshipmen need to see most is the stripes on the officers’ arms.’

An incident in my own experience well illustrates this peculiar point of view. A few years ago while I was conducting a recitation in Hamlet, the head of the English department, now a captain in the navy, came into the section room near the close of the period. I at once called on two midshipmen in succession to answer a simple question bearing on the text. Either through lack of preparation or through confusion over the officer’s sudden entrance, both flunked badly. Just then the dismissal bell rang, whereupon the officer sprang to his feet and, shaking a fat forefinger at the two unfortunates, burst out: ‘Now, you two young men, let me tell you something.’

Breathless, almost, I waited to hear what he had to say about the value of Shakespeare, the need of careful study, and so forth. Not a syllable of either. All he said was the following, and it has burned in my mind ever since as peculiarly illustrating the regard which ranking officers at Annapolis sometimes seem to have for the cultural subjects in the curriculum: —

‘When you two get back to quarters go to the barber shop and get shaved. You are a disgrace to the Naval Academy.’

That recitation certainly ended with a snap, and everybody present was sharply reminded that a neat and natty appearance should come first in the naval profession. Shakespeare was well enough, perhaps, but he should never get in the way of the barber!

Discipline — that is the word. It is the everlasting stringent discipline, which often stresses nonessentials, that makes the Academy function as well as it does. Boys work hard at Annapolis because they have to work hard; they study hard because the lessons are long and classroom help is often lacking. Under this relentless discipline they put forth the best that is in them, which cannot always be said of students elsewhere. If a midshipman oversteps the rules, and they are legion, he is at once ‘bawled out’ or punished in a severer way. If he becomes slack or lazy or indifferent, he is compelled to brace up, or he is branded a failure and goes out. When a boy enters the Academy he soon learns to get into a rapid stride and to keep everlastingly at it. For this discipline and its effect on the midshipmen I have nothing but praise. Under it the vast majority of them become alert, ready, attentive, and selfpossessed to a high degree. Their bearing in public is usually beyond censure.

Thus administrative heads may change frequently, the teaching (training) force may shift like a kaleidoscope, regulations may be altered every little while; nevertheless the Academy continues to function with considerable efficiency, and every spring it graduates in a blaze of glory several hundred specimens of rather vigorous American manhood, very capable as a rule, but broadly educated — no.

II

The traditional method of instruction at the Academy is really a hindrance rather than a help to education. It is not pedagogy. Midshipmen do not go to recitations to be taught, but to exhibit what they have garnered out of the textbooks. The officer-teacher, instructor, assistant professor, associate professor, or professor — all do exactly the same work in their respective departments — is not really expected to teach, but to listen and record marks. Hence to achieve a passing grade becomes a midshipman’s main ambition; if he gathers any intellectual or spiritual culture by the way, that is quite secondary. Generally speaking, the instructor is hardly anything more than a referee between the struggling midshipman and the textbook. Owing to this fact, and to the further fact that the lesson assignments are often tremendously long while study periods are sometimes painfully short, it is no wonder that midshipmen frequently feel that they are not learning very much. Said a midshipman to me recently: ‘They don’t teach you much down there.’ And I well remember how jubilantly another once remarked in my presence: ‘Well, thank the Lord I’ve finished calculus.’ ‘Good,’ I said. ‘What did you learn about it?’ ‘Nothing,’ said he.

Allowing a reasonable discount for youthful overstatement, one must admit nevertheless that these remarks suggest that the methods of instruction at the Academy might stand considerable improvement. Indeed, to a close observer the midshipmen often seem like children flung into a pool: if they can swim out, well and good; if not, then they go down — or ‘out’ in a different sense. If a midshipman graduates with a good standing after four years, it is really a credit to his own energy and brains, for he must largely work out his own salvation at the Naval Academy. Classroom instruction avails him but little.

Furthermore, if he graduates with his innate sense of American democracy intact, with no false impressions of his value to the world, he is indeed lucky. A little self-conceit is probably natural to most college graduates. It is a part of the effervescence with which youth is endowed and a result of an inability accurately to estimate values. The Naval Academy is not a hothed of snobbery, as thoughtless people have sometimes asserted, yet the atmosphere and the environment of a midshipman are such that, if the seeds of snobbishness are in him, they find easy cultivation. He wears a uniform which national prowess has made highly respectable, and extremely attractive to the feminine eye. He is paid liberally by the Government for studying the same courses that college men elsewhere have to pay for out of their own pockets. It is easy for him, therefore, to get the impression very early that he is a select individual, rather above the common herd. He is likely to learn that it is not befitting his station to carry his own luggage if he can help it; that is work for menials. If he learns to be very selective in his associates, it is not surprising, since social as well as military rank is highly esteemed in naval circles, and nowhere more so than in Annapolis. The necessity for being selective may even be forced upon him. Some few years ago a midshipman was severely reprimanded by the commandant for taking to a hop a very respectable young lady then living in the house of a junior officer and looking after the children. What! Bring a governess to an Academy ball! Horrors! But when, a few days later, it was discovered that the young lady in question, who had brought contamination to the regiment, was the daughter of a very eminent Yale professor who had become righteously indignant over the affair, profuse apologies were made by the superintendent — not to the midshipman, but to the Yale professor. This, I think, is an extreme case, not likely to happen often. It illustrates not so much a general Academy rule as the extent to which a single officer may go in his laudable zeal for the welfare of his charges.

The Naval Academy is not at heart a democratic institution. The seeds of genuine democracy are neither sown nor cultivated there. It is therefore no wonder that some young men graduate with a highly magnified sense of their worth. I have personally known more than one member of a graduating class, coming from humble but respectable parentage, openly to ignore both father and mother during the festivities in June Week, presumably because the latter did not fit in with the society of which they themselves were a part. On the other hand, many boys come to the Academy whose natural fibre is too fine and whose common sense is too strong to allow them to become inoculated with the virus of superlative egoism. They are the same upstanding, clear-sighted, democratic fellows when they graduate as they were on the day of their entrance. There are many such in the service today; they are the hope of the service, and of the nation, too. But they are the spiritually sane and strong, whom no environment can materially change.

Unfortunately the Naval Academy often suffers from being a one-man institution. The superintendent, usually a captain or an admiral in the navy, frequently rules the Academy yard as he would the deck of a battleship. His word there is law, and every man, woman, and child bows to that authority. Boards may suggest and advise, but the superintendent decides. Women may fret and wish that the next cup of tea which the superintendent takes may choke him; nevertheless they obey the countless, and sometimes trivial, regulations that emanate from his office. The Academy yard is not large, but within its limits has existed at times a veritable Prussian autocracy. This happily is not the case at present, but there is nothing except the sanity of the superintendent to prevent it.

When a recent superintendent came to the Academy almost the first person he met in a stroll about the yard was the chief of the labor gang.

‘What’s your job?’ demanded the admiral.

’I’m boss of the labor gang, sir,’ was the straightforward reply.

‘You ’re boss, are you? Well, let me tell you that in this place there is only one boss, and I am that. Understand?’

Whenever such bossism has existed at the Naval Academy in the past, the inevitable result has been to breed a spirit of subserviency such as one can scarcely find in any other institution of learning within the United States. I have known times when personal independence in small matters or big was permitted to only one man; when to walk humbly before the superintendent became the creed of all who would find life within the Academy yard even passably agreeable; when junior officers who happened to incur the displeasure of the superintendent suddenly found themselves ordered to some distant station; when instructors who dared to evince a modicum of personal spirit were compelled to resign. Thus this great, splendidly equipped, elaborately furnished institution, which ought to be the breeding place of independent thought, simple democracy, and the best American idealism, may, and sometimes has, become a harborage of lick-spittle humility, such as tends to sap one’s natural genius as an iron ring around a branch chokes the fibrous growth. Leadership in any institution undoubtedly should be vested in one person, but unless it is tempered by a decent respect for the feelings and opinions of others it is not true leadership. Naval Academy superintendents have not always been leaders of the highest type.

Under the trying conditions which at times obtain it would seem as if the Naval Academy would scarcely attract civilian educators of a very high grade. In fact, a former superintendent is reported to have said: ‘No civilian of any real ability would come to the Academy to teach.’ If he meant by this remark that the character of the instruction given to the midshipmen was such as did not require any unusual ability, it was a sad commentary on the Academy as a national school. At any rate the remark well illustrates the traditional naval point of view, which is that the Academy, being only a training school, requires neither scholarship nor professional skill nor experience in the faculty, but mainly the presence of men in uniform able to maintain the Spartan discipline. And, as young men can do that as well as old men, only youthful officers are ever sent to the Academy to carry on classroom work. Officers of any considerable rank and experience never do any teaching there. The natural consequence is that the profession of pedagogy is not really held in high repute at the Academy, and the civilian professor, who is devoting his life to the work, is not usually regarded as of much importance in the scheme of things.

It is therefore an easy step to the belief that no man of ability would come to the Academy to teach, and that those who do come are not men of ability or they would go somewhere else. Hence the civilian teachers on the faculty occupy a rather humble sphere. Call them instructors, professors, or what you will, they are generally regarded by the ranking officers at the Academy as necessary appendages, perhaps, but as little more than that. They are subjected to all the petty annoyances of a military society, but are granted few of its compensations. At most of the social and academic gatherings they take, or are given, a back seat. Their names are printed in the annual Academy register frequently without their academic degrees, although after every officer’s name appears his U.S.N. University degrees seem to have but little significance at the Naval Academy. Neither age nor experience nor literary or scholastic accomplishment receives decent recognition. The most accomplished scholar ever attached to the English department, a man of genuine literary ability, who had done more for the study of naval history, for example, than had all the rest of the force put together, was in June 1924 forced out of the Academy because he had somehow incurred the personal ill will of the reigning superintendent; and that, too, after a service of twenty-one years.1

Thus the position of the members of what we might call the educative force at the Academy, as distinguished from the training force, is often belittling and unhappy. Only by cultivating a certain callousness to the slights and those ‘ spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes ’ can an educator retain any marked degree of self-respect. Much of the recognition that his ability and services at a university should bring him is withheld. Indeed, what he does of a nonintellectual, nonprofessional character seems to be regarded as of more importance than his scholastic accomplishments or his work as a teacher. So we have the rather unedifying spectacle of professors in mathematics, English, and modern languages putting in most of their spare time outside of the classroom coaching officers’ bowling teams or midshipmen’s tennis and track athletics. And these activities have in more than one case undeniably had their professorial rewards! I have said that the Naval Academy is regarded mainly as a training school. It may be that this is what we wish it to be rather than a national university. It may be that, while Yale, Harvard, and other great institutions continue to stress broad scholarship, we shall continue to be satisfied to have our Naval Academy magnify the importance of the classroom mark and the shaven chin. But if we wish this school to sow in the minds of its students the seeds of a liberal culture as well as to give them a certain readiness to adapt hand and brain to material ends; if, to put it bluntly, we wish the Naval Academy to take equal rank with other American institutions of learning in the classroom as well as on the gridiron and in the ballroom, then certain changes in administration and method should be adopted.

III

Educational ideals are apparently not high at our Naval Academy. Greater emphasis seems to be laid on outward appearances than on inward graces. A well-known Maryland jurist, long familiar with the Academy, once said to me: ’It is a good thing for a boy to spend a year or two at the Academy. He learns to say “Sir,” is taught to keep his nails clean and the soap out of his ears, and to know the value of a fresh collar once in a while.’ The indictment underlying this sarcasm is strong, to say the least, but it shows that to thinking, observing people, who see beneath the glamour of the uniform, our great national school is stressing the unimportant over the important things of life. A department chief who can place a newly reaped chin above the glories of Shakespeare is no slight evidence of that fact.

A more fixed and more stable policy should obtain at the Academy. A constant shifting of administrative heads can scarcely benefit any institution. Being a naval school, it should be under naval control, but the officers chosen for duty there should be men with especial fitness for it; they should not be selected on the present hit-or-miss plan. To transfer a man from the deck of a battleship to a college classroom for a few months and expect him to do efficient educational work there is about as fatuous a policy as could be devised. It seems worse, perhaps, to place him in a position to supervise such work. Yet this is exactly our policy at the Naval Academy to-day, and it always has been.

Furthermore, the Academy should never be a one-man institution. Its head should be a capable administrator, never a dictator; and broad-minded directorship, when found, should be given some permanency there. The superintendency of the Naval Academy should be such as to encourage independent thought and scholarly ambition, never the subserviency which has certainly vitiated the atmosphere in times past. It should stimulate activity on the part of midshipmen and instructors through ambition rather than through fear.

The cultural education of the men who are to represent us in the ports of the world should be given more serious attention than at present; it should be considered at least as important as the physical training, not less so. In the two great English naval schools the subjects of English, modern languages, and history continue through the four years; with us they practically cease at the end of the second year, and much of the work in these subjects meanwhile is of the preparatory-school order.

Then, too, the teaching body at the Academy should be an educative force, not a mere group of umpires to call strikes and outs. The more professional departments — seamanship, navigation, discipline, and others — should be controlled wholly by naval officers. Unquestionably the naval officer can bring to the midshipman out of his practical experience that which no civilian can bring, and much that the midshipman needs. On the other hand, the departments of English, modern languages, mathematics, and possibly the more technical departments of physics, electricity, and steam engineering, should as surely be filled by universitytrained teachers, men who have chosen teaching for their life work and who represent the best cultural and educational ideas of the times. And the members of the civilian corps should be given more permanency; they should not be regarded as temporary appendages, hired from year to year. A professorship at the Academy should mean in both honor and emolument what such a position means in the best universities. To-day it means little except salary. Indeed, if a professor occupies himself outside of the classroom in serious reading or doing some useful work calculated to make himself a better teacher and citizen, instead of playing golf or tennis or bridge whist or coaching midshipmen’s athletics, he is likely to be looked upon askance. It would seem as if university ideals in education should prevail at the Academy, not preparatory-school notions.

Moreover, the Academy should be divorced from politics, as are the English naval schools. It is hard to see how this can be done absolutely, since the institution is one of the playthings of Congress, but an effort should be made to minimize political influence over it as much as possible. Appointments to the Academy are still frequently given to curry political favor or to pay a political debt, and rumors that appointments can be purchased for money, and have been purchased, will not down. Political influence has not yet ruined the Academy, but to my certain knowledge it has at times kept slack and unable boys there month after month to the exclusion of possibly worthier ones.

Finally, the ambitions of the midshipmen should be stimulated above the acquisition of marks and the attainment of social and naval rank. In other words, let the Naval Academy strive to educate in the highest sense, to give its students at least the groundwork of a broader and a sounder culture and a keener vision of life’s realities, as well as a disciplined hand and brain; and with its material equipment and noble traditions it should become a splendid model for other institutions to follow. American colleges to-day may be said to educate their students without disciplining them very much; the Naval Academy disciplines its students extremely well, but I question if it gives them that broad knowledge which their profession demands.

  1. The hostility of the superintendent was incurred by the professor’s contributing to the Atlantic two articles critical of the navy and its traditions. See the Atlantic for November 1918 and March 1919. — THE EDITORS