The Right Way to Educate Navy Officers
Image Credit: flickr/ MaryLouiseEklund

The Right Way to Educate Navy Officers



As civilian academe debates the merits of technical and non-technical college degrees, the U.S. Navy is carrying on its own parallel bloodletting conversation. The scientific, technical, engineering, and mathematics — a.k.a. STEM — fields are much in vogue in the service. Indeed, the chief of naval operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, recently issued guidance mandating that 85 percent of officer candidates earn degrees in scientific-technical disciplines. That’s up from the 65 percent benchmark currently in force. STEM mania has aroused consternation among non-quantitative types in the navy, just as it has on civilian campuses from sea to shining sea. (Look at any edition of Inside Higher Ed for the latest installment from the civilian world.)

Nuclear power lies at the heart of the navy’s debate. Too few officer candidates, it seems, boast the academic prerequisites to attend Nuclear Power School, and thence qualify to operate the nuclear power plants in America’s aircraft carriers and submarines. But the Golden Rule works in the navy’s favor here. The service has the gold, paying U.S. Naval Academy and Naval ROTC midshipmen’s way through school. It can make the rules governing what they study. If the nuclear-power community needs more engineering officers, the leadership can require more midshipmen to amass the requisite coursework. And then it can dispatch the press gang come commissioning time.

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Problem solved. Yet teeth have been gnashed and garments rent in commentary on the navy’s mandate. Naval Diplomat pal CDR Salamander speaks out on behalf of mush-headed humanities and social-science majors everywhere, decrying “the warping effects of an unbalanced mind.” By that he presumably means too many skulls awash in numbers and formulas, too few in Gibbon and Chaucer.

Meanwhile, a self-confessed “pocket-protector-wearing poindexter” — think the cast of The Big Bang Theory — wonders why partisans of the humanities and social sciences assume they can pick up advanced mathematics, physics, or engineering on sea duty while a STEM-degree-bearing officer could never master history, politics, or strategy in similar circumstances. Good question. If that really is an underlying assumption, it’s a faulty one. Those adept with numbers can read.

The latest salvo comes from Lieutenant Alexander Smith, a Naval ROTC instructor and master’s candidate in history at George Washington University. Smith vouchsafes that downplaying non-technical disciplines will deprive the vast majority of officers of “the unique quality of comprehensive thinking through critical reading and reflection.” He gets to the heart of the matter, methinks, by opining that the decision will cost the officer corps the intellectual diversity on which it thrives.


As a mush-headed poindexter from way back (bachelor’s in mathematics and German), I can confirm there’s no reason why STEM majors can’t learn political philosophy and humanities majors can’t learn chemistry while pursuing undergraduate studies. Indeed, the navy already requires all Naval ROTC midshipmen to take certain basic courses, such as a year of calculus, a year of calculus-based physics, and a year of English grammar and composition. The U.S. Naval Academy’s core requirements are somewhat more extensive, taking up most of a midshipman’s “plebe,” or freshman, year while spilling into the upper class years as well.

To produce a well-rounded officer corps, why not let students pick whatever majors they want while expanding the list of core courses to fill the needs of the navy? If the fleet needs more nuclear-trained officers to steam its plants, then figure out the basic coursework a Nuclear Power School entrant needs and demand it of all officer candidates. If studying classical Greece or Rome, or Shakespeare, is useful for junior officers — and it is — then let’s require that as well.

And so forth. That would make for an intellectually, ahem, diverse education for all. And should the core curriculum consume most of students’ college years, well, my eyes will remain dry of crocodile tears.

That is all.

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