The Few, the Proud, the Infantilized

Pat Kinsella for The Chronicle Review

The U.S. military-service academies—at West Point (Army), Annapolis (Navy), Colorado Springs (Air Force), and New London (Coast Guard)—are at the center of several debates, both military and civilian. The military is downsizing, and the federal budget is under scrutiny: Do the academies deserve to continue?

They're 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. 

Another officer-production pipeline is Officer Candidate School, which is about as large a source of officers as the academies. It gives a six- to 12-week training course for mature enlistees and college graduates who paid for their educations on their own (that is, did not participate in ROTC), and it costs taxpayers almost nothing. It could be expanded by pitching it to college students who might want to become officers when they graduate.

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 academies do have a handful of honors programs, and their engineering programs are nationally ranked. But for the most part, academics are lackluster despite an intense focus on grades. Although free time is granted or withheld based on GPA, an atmosphere exists in which studying isn't "cool," and freshmen, or plebes, aren't allowed to take the afternoon naps that would allow them stay awake in class. (Sleep deprivation is used to "teach" students how to stay awake on the job—except there is no evidence that working while sleep-deprived is something you can get better at.)

The academies' focus on physicality is largely lip service as well. We claim to promote fitness but then refuse to throw out students who repeatedly fail to pass physical tests. Gone are the days of "shape up or ship out": Nowadays we "remediate."

We also claim that students are "held to a higher moral standard," which suggests zero or low tolerance of wrongdoing. But the current emphasis on reducing attrition means that, as many midshipmen have told me, students get one "freebie," such as a DUI. Held to a higher moral standard? The students know that's a joke.

What else justifies our existence? Our most consistent justification is that we teach "leadership." We even make students take classes in the subject. Midshipmen roll their eyes. Leadership can't be taught, it can only be modeled.

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.

Decades of talking with students at the Naval Academy have convinced me that most dislike academic work because it is one more thing the students have to do. Why should they be interested? They're not paying for it. And Daddy isn't either, at least not more than any other taxpayer.

The military side of things suffers, too. Inspections are announced and called off at the last minute, or done sloppily. After all, everything is make-believe. Students aren't motivated to take care of their own uniforms or abide by the rules because they realize it's all just for show. Administrators want to make sure nobody gets hurt to avoid negative publicity, and as a result students are not pushed to their limits. They resent it. They come expecting Parris Island, but they get national historic landmarks where tourists come to feel proud of nice-looking young people.

Is there anything good about the academies? Absolutely: the students, by and large. You won't find a more focused, eager-for-a-challenge, desperate-to-make-a-difference group of young adults (whom we proceed to infantilize) anywhere. Some catch on quickly about the hype and don't let it bother them. They pragmatically view the academy as a taxpayer-supported means to an end they desperately want. And we have some bright students: About a quarter of entering freshmen have SAT scores above 700 with grades to match (but that is a far smaller proportion of high scorers than at the Ivies).   


 A handful are high performers. One of my students last year was a varsity swimmer, an English honors graduate in the top 5 percent of his class, and the "honor man" (single best performer) in his SEAL class at the famously brutal Basic Underwater Demolition training. That is gorgeous stuff, the ultimate combination of brains and brawn the academies say they produce. But how rare at Annapolis!—or indeed, anywhere.

Another of my students, a systems-engineering major, was in the top 1 percent of his class and is now doing graduate work at the University of Oxford. He also won, as a sophomore, a competition sponsored by Harvard's Kennedy School for his essay on how to filter out arsenic from Ganges Delta water by running it through fern leaves. At the reception given after his lecture, he was too young to drink the chardonnay. The following weekend he returned to Boston to run the Boston Marathon with the Naval Academy team. It's true, America: The service academies really can enroll outstanding students. But such students are the exception.

Whose fault is this generally disappointing state of affairs? Partly it's the gravitational pull of history. The service academies are relics of the 19th century. (Exception: The Air Force was split off from the Army after World War II and got its stand-alone academy as a postscript in l954.) At the time, they clearly represented progress. War had become more technical, and soldiers-in-training needed a technical education that colleges still largely devoted to Greek, Latin, and religion were unequipped to provide.

But the world has changed. Now most reputable colleges offer technical courses, and top-tier colleges and universities already produce many of our officers and leaders. At the same time, the academies have become more like civilian colleges, albeit rather strange ones. We now give a bachelor of science (to all majors, including English and history) rather than a certificate for a standard course of study as we initially did. Students walk to class rather than march; women were accepted starting in 1976; going to chapel is no longer mandatory. And now, of course, we enroll openly gay students.

The best students at the service academies are deeply angry, disillusioned, and frustrated.

Should we keep the academies? Maybe there's a place for them, if we can eliminate their worst flaws. The academies attract a certain type of student: hard-charging, military-oriented, with expectations of both physical and mental challenges. But the academies squander that rich resource. If we want to preserve the academies, and can accept the fact that they don't produce better officers than the cheaper routes of ROTC and Officer Candidate School, it should be possible to find a serviceable hull of a military educational institution under all the barnacles.

Of course, the administrators don't like to face facts. Their position at the top of a military pecking order means that nobody tells them bad news. Besides, their interest is in doing their three to four years and moving on. Reforming the service academies is a job for Congress, goaded by taxpayers.

We should consider first that what we do in the United States is the exception among comparable institutions in allied democracies. Most of those once-similar institutions have changed. None of our sister academies offer a whole alternative. But looking at other options can get us thinking.

The European academy we're spiritually closest to is Britain's Sandhurst (U.S. armed forces are patterned on the British). Sandhurst has shown that a prestigious national service academy can change fundamentally without giving up its central role in history or defense: It's gone out of the business of undergraduate education entirely. Rather than giving a four-year college experience to undergraduates of tender age, trying to combine academics with military training as it once did and as we still do, Sandhurst now offers military classroom subjects only to students who have matriculated elsewhere. So the students are older, and the program doesn't compete with college.

But it doesn't make sense in the United States to require everyone training to be an officer to take a yearlong military course after university, the way Britain does, because ROTC already exists at many universities. And we also have Officer Candidate School for both college graduates and those who are already enlisted.

The Belgian military academy gives a bachelor's degree, which we do and Sandhurst does not. But its range of technical subjects is even more limited than ours, and it offers no nontechnical courses. More important, it separates military activities from periods of academic study. You do nothing but academics for several months, then go off to crawl around in the dirt. Then you come back for more academics, and so on. It's one or the other, not both at the same time, as in this country.

At Saint-Cyr in France, students enter at about age 21 and stay for three years, graduating with a master's degree. Specialized training at a more advanced age in military schools makes sense in Europe in a way it may not in the United States, with our tradition of giving general education in the first two years of college. In Europe students receive that kind of education in high schools.

In Germany military students at the service academies wear civilian clothes and follow civilian protocol; in Australia the defense academy is contracted out to the University of New South Wales, though the students do wear military uniforms.

The military academy that is the closest to the American model—four-year undergraduate institutions—is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Royal Military College of Canada. The college has solved many of the problems of the U.S. academies by loosening control rather than increasing it, so that the clash of academics and military is buffered to some degree. Unlike in the United States, students may live off campus, marry, and be any age—older cadets are trained separately.

The easiest and least-intrusive fix for the American academies is thus to make them more like the RMC. Simply loosening students' leashes would solve a lot of our problems overnight.

But that wouldn't solve the fundamental one, which is that academic and military training, when stirred together, cancel each other out. We need to separate academics from military training, as in Belgium. Three months of total immersion in academics could be followed by a month of total immersion in military exercises. And here's what else U.S. military academies could do:

1. End the tradition of a class getting to practice its "leadership" on the class below it. Freshmen have to do a million newbie things (each academy has its own version). At the Naval Academy, plebes have to jog ("chop") in the hallways; "square" corners and yell something motivational, like "Beat Army, Sir!"; carry their hats in a certain way; address every upper-class student as "Sir" or "Ma'am"; and yell menus for the day at top speed. Each class reports to and is ranked by the classes above it.  


 The theory behind student-on-student "leadership" is that students become better leaders when they have younger students to organize and be responsible for. But students complain constantly to me about being ordered around by midshipmen only a year further along who have real power to punish without any corresponding competence. There is no evidence that students practicing "organization skills" and "decision making" on younger guinea pigs while still immature and incompetent does much to create better leaders. As far as I know, ROTC officers, who do no such play-acting, are perfectly adequate.

2. Stop infantilizing students. That infuriates alphas, as well it should. Make clear what the goals are, show students the tools we've come up with to help them achieve those goals, and let them go. Now, our military students don't "own" the goals of their training, so they don't care about them. We have to step back and control less, not more—that's the only way to get hard-chargers involved. For example, military students should be able to live off campus, as in Canada, and develop the responsibility to show up for muster on time. They might overwhelm the town of Annapolis, say, if they all moved out, so the privilege could be limited to older students or seniors.

3. Allow older students to enroll, if they can hack the physical challenges. Now students need to be under 23 the day they begin summer training before their freshman year. Canada's Royal Military College accepts students into their 30s, and we should too. It makes no sense to turn away competent and mature recruits just because they're no longer in their early 20s.

4. End the practice of awarding military pay and benefits to students at both military prep schools and the academies. ROTC students don't get those advantages, nor do students at military colleges like VMI. The unqualified recruits we remediate at the Naval Academy's prep school receive not only benefits but food and housing, plus a $500-a- month salary. Service-academy graduates also receive an additional four years counted in their retirement benefits if they enter federal service. There is no such largess for ROTC students.

5. Give time credit for transfers. Now, everybody has to do four years at an academy, restarting as a plebe even if you started college elsewhere. That's silly. You don't have to have four years at an academy to be a good officer—in fact, you don't need any years at all, as ROTC shows. Instead of clamping down and cutting ourselves off from the civilian world that we are meant to defend, we need to look for ways to open up—to welcome transfers, older students, and exchange students from ROTC programs.

6. To open up more seats, academies should throw out students who fail to live up to academic and moral standards. The academies should stop recruiting below-par students who use academy prep schools as back doorways into their freshman years. These students fill slots for which better-qualified applicants are rejected. Our affirmative-action programs reject better-qualified white students in favor of unqualified nonwhite students, and the quest for national football glory means that many slots are filled with poor-performing students with weak commitment to the military.

7. Finally, have a real college president for the college part of things. The head of the Naval Academy is an admiral who last saw college when he graduated. Let's have civilian Ph.D.'s for all the academies, ideally women—because so much of what we do seems to be just the nonsense of older men trying to force younger men to do what they say to get a simulacrum of respect.

Some rules must remain. We should continue to ban drinking, because drinking under 21 is unsafe and illegal. But the academies should have no opinion about sex. As it is now, sex at the academies is against the rules. For four years. (Even public displays of affection, such as holding hands, are forbidden.) Saying that we have no opinion about sex doesn't mean we encourage it: We just have no opinion about it, the way we have no opinion about whom students vote for or what music they like. The Naval Academy, for example, is not a ship, and current attempts to pretend it is creates a sense of surreal silliness.

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.

Correction (10/9/12, 2:00 p.m.): The original version of this article mischaracterized a retirement benefit service-academy graduates can receive. They receive a four-year retirement credit if they enter federal employment, not if they serve 20 years in the military. The text has been corrected.

Bruce Fleming is a professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy. He is the author, most recently, of Bridging the Military-Civilian Divide (Potomac Books, 2010).