<< The Body Politic

The few, the proud, the infantilized

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

Writing at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Bruce Fleming, a professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy and the author of Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide, argues that the American service academies are in desperate need of reform–and that they could take some cues from the ROTC programs on other college campuses.

He writes:

[The service academies are] educational institutions, but do they actually educate, and furthermore, do they produce “leaders” as they claim to? And are they worth the $400,000 or so per graduate (depending on the academy) they cost taxpayers?

After all, we already have a federal program that produces officers—an average of twice as many as those who go to the academies (three times for the Army)—at a quarter of the cost. That program is ROTC, the Reserve Officer Training Corps, which has expanded considerably since World War II, when the academies produced the lion’s share of officers.

No data suggest that ROTC officers are of worse quality than those graduating from the academies, who are frequently perceived by enlisted military as arrogant “ring-knockers” (after their massive old-style class rings). The academies evoke their glory days by insisting that many more admirals, say, come from Annapolis than from ROTC. But that is no longer true. Between 1972 and 1990 (these are the latest figures available), the percentage of admirals from ROTC climbed from 5 percent to 41 percent, and a 2006 study indicated that commissioning sources were not heavily weighted in deciding who makes admiral. […]

So the service academies are no longer indispensable for producing officers. Their graduates now make up only about 20 percent of the officer corps in any given year. It’s clear that we don’t need the academies in their current form—versions of a kind of military Disneyland. These institutions do produce some fine officers, even some leaders. But the students I respect the most tell me that those who succeed do so despite the institutions, not because of them.

The best midshipmen—and, as I know through conversations and written correspondence, the best students at the other service academies—are deeply angry, disillusioned, and frustrated. They thought the academies would be a combination of an Ivy League university and a commando school. They typically find that they are neither.

Most of what the Naval Academy’s PR machine disseminates is nonsense, as midshipmen quickly realize, which diminishes their respect for authority. We announce that they’re the “best and brightest” and then recruit students who would be rejected from even average colleges, sending them, at taxpayer expense, to our one-year Naval Academy Prepatory School. (About a quarter of recent entering classes over the last decade or so has SAT scores below 600, some in the 400s and even 300s. Twenty percent of the class needs a remedial pre-college year.)


The central paradox of the service academies is that we attract hard-charging “alpha” types and then make all their decisions for them. Students are told when to study and when to work out, whom they can date (nobody in their company), and when they can wear civilian clothes. All students must attend football games and cheer, and go to evening lectures and cultural events (where many sleep in their seats). The list goes on.

The academies are the ultimate nanny state. “When are they going to let me make some decisions?” one student asked in frustration. “The day I graduate?” This infantilization turns students passive-aggressive, and many of them count the years, months, and days until they can leave. […]

For me, at the Naval Academy—where I have been teaching for 25 years—what hurts the most is that the average midshipman has no respect for the institution. I, by contrast, deeply respect its goals—not its lamentable reality. We’ve lost sight of those goals, and the students are left wondering what they’re doing there, losing respect for themselves as a result.

The service academies could represent the best in American military culture. The students might look forward to real military maneuvers. They might be eager to go to class. They might finally be proud of their institutions. They might get their mojo back, graduating bright-eyed and motivated to serve, rather than disillusioned and cynical, as most of them are now.

 Read the whole article here.