Lieutenant Alexander Smith's December 2012 Nobody Asked Me, But column “Don’t Say Goodbye to Intellectual Diversity,” detailing the impact of the tiered academic system on incoming naval officers, appropriately generated a fair amount of debate. Most of the opinions came down on one side or the other, insisting that the Navy show a preference for either humanities majors or those majoring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). But this is a false choice.
Ultimately, most arguments about officers’ college majors focus on two opposite points in their careers: on one hand, success as strategic thinkers and policy makers upon becoming flag officers; on the other, success during the training pipeline and initial tours as brand-new junior officers. Based on historical and personal observation, the choice of college major hasn’t made much of a difference at either point for naval officers.
Whether they focused on STEM or humanities, what Navy and Marine Corps flag officers studied in college has not really impacted their leadership or vision 30 years later. What does seem to make a difference is an innate sense of curiosity, a willingness to continue learning, and experiences during the career path. For instance, the U.S. Naval Academy did not start offering majors until well after the World War II. Until then it was a trade school, offering a core curriculum with few electives, usually languages. Graduates of this curriculum included strategic thinkers and leaders such as Chester W. Nimitz, Ernest J. King, Harold R. Stark, Arthur Radford, Arleigh Burke, and Elmo R. Zumwalt. Each of these officers either sought out continued learning opportunities, such as at the Naval War College, or experienced important mentorship. Arguably the most formative experiences for Nimitz, Stark, Burke, and Zumwalt occurred almost 20 years into their careers. Zumwalt referred to his mentorship by Secretary of the Navy Paul Nitze as the equivalent of a PhD in political-military affairs. In short, college did not shape the leaders these officers became. Subsequent experiences and learning did.
Nine years ago, in my Naval Nuclear Power School class, the choice of major did not seem to have a heavy bearing on exam performance. One of our top graduates majored in history, and another in the classics (neither of which, I regret to say, was me). After serving in the wardroom of three different submarines, I again reached the conclusion that an officer’s college major did not really matter. We had terrific officers from both the humanities and STEM. We also had underperforming officers from both backgrounds.
What the Navy should focus on is the core curriculum for accessions from the Reserve Officer Training Corps, Naval Academy, or Officer Candidate School. Regardless of service selection, there is a benefit for naval officers (most of whom are going to ships, planes, or submarines) to be introduced to calculus, chemistry, electrical engineering, thermodynamics, literature, history, and government. But outside of this fundamental program, which takes up a good chunk of time, officer candidates should be given the freedom to choose their own majors.
Such autonomy allows students to focus on something for which they have passion, thereby contributing to their personal accomplishments and chances for academic success. One acquaintance of mine who eventually became a Navy SEAL was able to turn around his academic performance by switching his concentration from engineering to political science. He had performed satisfactorily in the core curriculum’s STEM courses but had no passion to continue. On the other hand, he read Plato for pleasure.
Arguing about humanities versus STEM does not address the real issues that affect the training pipeline or the development of senior leaders. Gaps in technical knowledge should be addressed through the core curriculum; a lack of strategic wisdom should be dealt with through updates to Professional Military Education and the post-command career path.
Incoming officers should be able to make college the academically fulfilling and mind-expanding opportunity it should be. With the right core curriculum, they can still succeed in the Fleet.