Within two years of graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in the late 1980s, I read Allan Bloom’s then-recently published bestselling critique of higher education, The Closing of the American Mind. In part, the book was a searing rebuke of at least a 20-year drift toward political correctness and relativism in higher education. More important for me, however, was the effect the book had on my intellectual self-awareness. It was a tour de force of Western thought, from Plato to Nietzsche, and an exhilarating read, but it also left me wondering why I knew so little about many great thinkers and writers. I realized then how narrow my undergraduate education had actually been.
I initially accepted this uncomfortable realization as the predictable outcome of my having chosen the wrong path to a commissioning, through a service academy instead of a small liberal arts college. In the next few years I devoted myself to two things: my professional development as an officer and doing as much deep reading as possible. I learned along the way that the two endeavors were really one and the same.
Many would see this self-education journey not as a remedy for a wrong turn or missed opportunity, but simply as a natural and laudable outcome of a desire for knowledge properly nurtured during my midshipman years. In part, that must be true. But now as I approach the end of my career, I do not think it is entirely so. What I have experienced the past 27 years, albeit mostly in a non-technical field (intelligence), has convinced me that overspecialization at the undergraduate level and a disturbing conflation of true education with vocational training in the colleges and universities of America is failing to adequately prepare men and women for long-term service as naval officers. As a result, the U.S. Navy today is forced to access officers who are narrowly educated in specialized fields. To be sure, the Naval Academy does better than most colleges and universities at avoiding this outcome, although arguably not nearly well enough.
Ceasefire on STEM vs. Liberal Arts
The debate in the United States today over the need for college students to specialize—particularly in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) majors—rages on, normally with STEM pitted against the liberal arts in a “one or the other” point-counterpoint exercise that swiftly descends into the banal. What is more relevant to the Navy is not a debate over the value of specific academic majors to an individual’s career or the economy or society (a somewhat stale and irrelevant debate), but also a debate in the STEM and liberal arts communities about internal reform and the value of an interdisciplinary approach to undergraduate education (a very old idea being reheated as something new).
Part of the soul-searching within the STEM fields centers on seeking a better way to structure and teach a more expansive interdisciplinary curricula, with innovative alternatives like those at the Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts and at Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering, where all undergraduates earn a bachelor of arts in engineering sciences. Some of the nation’s most accomplished and articulate defenders of a true liberal arts education are reemphasizing that a liberal education means not just the liberal arts, but core STEM courses as well. Both Michael S. Roth’s Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters (Yale University Press, 2014) and Andrew Delbanco’s College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be (Princeton University Press, 2012) spring to mind.
More recently, Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education (W. W. Norton & Company, 2015) argues that America’s obsession with STEM is not only wrongheaded, it is downright dangerous because our country’s tradition of providing a widely available liberal education has been central to American innovation for decades.1 If the Navy of the future truly needs well-educated leaders who thrive in ambiguous and uncertain environments, it needs to define more precisely the undergraduate learning outcomes of future naval officers. Relying almost exclusively on degree type and GPA is lazy and insufficient. Given what it costs the Navy to fund undergraduate education at Annapolis and through the NROTC programs nationwide, it is very much in the Navy’s interest to take a thorough look at the state of undergraduate education today, particularly the general-education core at colleges and universities producing the majority of naval officers.
The Demise of General Education
In recent decades, very few colleges and universities have required a general education core curriculum of enough substance and rigor to be more than a mere nuisance to students focused almost exclusively on fulfilling the requirements of their majors. Indeed, many students used advanced placement classes from high school to validate much of the core before they ever sat down in their first class freshman year. The University of Chicago, Columbia University, Bard College, and St. John’s College in Annapolis were among the notable exceptions. The chief culprit in the demise of general education are the academic departments and the ascendance of specialization at the expense of a general liberal education seen increasingly as anachronistic in our more technical world. Today, the college campus is really not much more than a geographic setting for an increasing number of academic departments and centers that must be coerced into cooperating with each other to support a reinvigoration of general education. Anything outside the requirements for a department’s major is regarded as an explicit threat to its funding and status. A well-rounded, broadly educated student is an outcome that does little, if anything, for an academic department.
This is one reason why Olin College of Engineering, since its founding in 1997, has refused to establish departments or offer tenure. It is also why the Association for American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, recently launched the General Education Maps and Markers initiative to reinvigorate a broader undergraduate education.
The Naval Academy abandoned the 40-hour common curriculum and adopted a majors program in the early 1970s—more than 40 years ago but still quite late to the specialization scene. Academic specialization at the undergraduate level was already prevalent in the United States by the late 19th century with the rise of the American version of the research university. (Academic majors were formally established at Harvard by 1910.) This trend alarmed no less than the great American philosopher William James who, in 1903, published the highly satirical essay “The PhD Octopus.” According to Harvard Associate Professor John Kaag, the essay was a “disturbingly prescient take on the future of higher education. He implied that our universities would be partitioned by the professional cliques of departments and defined by the kind of hyperspecialization that only a cliquish culture can beget.”2 Nearly a century later, literary scholar Louis Menand, also from Harvard, passed judgment on what the research university in the United States had become, namely: “expensive; it is philosophically weak; and it encourages intellectual predictability, professional insularity, and social irrelevance.”3
Then in 1997, Leon Botstein, the idealistic and somewhat iconoclastic president of Bard College, wrote this about specialization and majors programs in undergraduate school:
[U]ndergraduate “majors” inevitably favor their best students, defined as those who hold the most promise for a scholarly career. No department wants to become a “service department” without its own majors, relegated to teaching skills and materials to students who are primarily interested in other subjects. It does not seem sufficiently dignified for the purpose of an English department, for example, to educate a literate physician. This is unfortunate. Academic departments often function as if they were merchants in a bazaar, hustling undergraduates to become majors. Administrations, in turn, measure success by counting heads in terms of enrollments that derive from majors: the more majors, the more successful the department. This pattern even spills down to the college applicant, who is asked a ridiculous question: What would you like to major in? . . . The right questions to ask the prospective student are: What issues interest you? What kinds of things would you like to study? What would you like to know more about? If one starts with the problems that young people formulate about the world, one discovers that answering them requires the expertise of individuals, defined in ways that do not correspond neatly with the departmental structure of a graduate school. And the search for answers to old questions and the framing of new questions demand an encounter with the full scope of intellectual traditions conserved by the university.4
The Specialization Trend
Despite Menand’s criticism, the research university has been a central force in the technical achievements so important to the Navy, especially in the latter half of the 20th century. But throughout that entire history, and especially after the advent of “jointness” in the late 1980s, the Navy’s line officers have remained generalized to a large degree, even when serving the majority of their careers in platform communities. Their specialized training is heavily technical (some more so than others), laying one foundation of specialized technical training on top of a technical undergraduate degree. A strong math and science core at the undergraduate level is important, if not an absolute necessity, to ensure success at initial officer training, but an undergraduate technical major is not necessary. In other words, the Navy’s insistence that 65 percent of commissioned unrestricted line officers have undergraduate degrees in STEM majors does not logically follow from the premise that they must have acquired the necessary STEM knowledge to succeed in initial training and initial operational tours. Several studies have confirmed this, including one by William R. Bowman in 1990 and most recently by the Center for Naval Analyses in 2008.5
While the specialization trend intensified as a natural result of the expansion of knowledge, the Navy felt it had no choice but to abandon general education as the central feature in an officer’s undergraduate education. Instead, the major became the foundation around which general education requirements and electives were fitted. Thus, any argument for a strong science and math component of a more balanced general education as being more than sufficient to commission officers into an increasingly technical Navy faded away quickly, for no other reason than the center of gravity for undergraduate education shifted to the academic department. The most often-heard argument for the Naval Academy to have and maintain a vibrant majors program is that it must do so to compete with the top U.S. universities for the best high school talent. Yet objective evidence simply does not exist that specializing at the undergraduate level produces a better-educated officer for a long Navy career, leaving proponents of STEM specialization to base their assertion on “their experiences” and “their professional opinions.” One can only smile when while doing so they dismiss all the scientific evidence that contradicts their subjective experiences.
Thus the Navy today finds itself in the uncomfortable position of endorsing a higher-education system that does not really produce what it needs, but is a system the Navy feels is necessary to attract the people it needs. This position is built wholly on an axiom, and nothing more. Fortunately, however, the hyperspecialization of higher education in America’s best colleges and universities may finally have hit high tide. In addition to the AAC&U’s effort to reinvigorate general education, interdisciplinary majors are becoming much more common, as are majors with more expansive non-major course offerings (usually to attract more students to the major). This was not driven solely by the Academy’s introspection, but also by industry’s complaints for years that college graduates need better communication and critical-thinking skills, something the Navy needs just as much as industry—if not more.
An Old Debate
The issue of an ideal education for an officer has become clouded with confusion and often afflicted with unfriendly debate for at least the past three decades. Admiral Hyman Rickover dogmatically took the Navy down a path where only a technical undergraduate degree was really valued. This vision of a platform-centric, technically competent officer corps carried much of the day by the late 1960s. As Admiral James Stavridis and Captain Mark Hagerott noted in their 2009 Naval War College Review article on the need for officers to have a broader education: “Rickover remade more than the hardware of the submarine fleet. Rickover inspired changes to line-officer education and assignment patterns. More than any other single officer, he was responsible for the increased emphasis on technical education and technical specialization for line officers.”6 It is unfortunate that instead of focusing more specifically on what an officer actually needs in the way of scientific knowledge and demonstrated competence in technical fields, Rickover took the extreme position that the Navy needs “engineers.” Judging from some of his testimony and other public statements, Rickover viewed an engineer as not just someone who completed an engineering degree but as a type of person (a desirable type for his Navy), juxtaposed against a humanities type of person (undesirable). Rickover was quite honest about and made no apologies for his disdain of formal education in the humanities.
With the Cold War long over and the need for a much more agile and diverse Navy upon us in the 21st century, it is high time the Navy re-examines the state of higher education in the United States with the goal of more precisely determining and demanding rigorous general education requirements for prospective naval officers. Getting that right will make the STEM major versus non-STEM major discussion largely irrelevant. Performance in a rigorous general-education curriculum will be more than enough from which to judge a candidate’s potential to succeed in initial training pipelines such as the Navy Nuclear Power program. With the major occupying a less prominent place in the four-year experience, the candidate will be able to achieve the broader education needed to better serve him or her well beyond initial platform training and the initial junior-officer tours, and into the middle and senior ranks of the officer corps where operational and strategic thinking are more highly valued and needed.
Defining the Well-Educated Graduate
So what would this reinvigorated general education look like? Without attempting to provide a detailed curriculum, let me offer some contours based on the views of some notable experts on higher education. In his book, Botstein outlines a broad and balanced approach that includes healthy and rigorous coursework in science, math, history, civics, literature, philosophy, psychology, art, and music. He thunders against a narrow-minded view of education in only a utilitarian context, where curriculum should have a clear and immediate connection to practical skills in the workplace:
Learning for its own sake is the best preparation for functioning competitively and creatively. . . . Studying philosophy, for example, might be just the thing an undergraduate engineering major needs to become an innovative engineer. The essential training engineers get in problem solving, using mathematics and the procedures of basic science—not applied science—turns out to be critical in the workplace later on. So, too, is an education in complementary disciplines, including history and philosophy. Likewise, a solid understanding of psychology and literature, not to mention American economic and social history, will serve an undergraduate business major better than a course in marketing, especially if that student has the acuity and instinct to recognize its value.7
Botstein does not advocate abolishing majors altogether, acknowledging that there is value in a modest amount of specialization involving some “deep research.” By contrast, Roger Schank, the cognitive scientist and artificial-intelligence theorist, does advocate eliminating departments and majors. Schank has long argued that universities are “built around the research interests of the faculty and what they want to teach, not how students need to learn.” Schank proposes dividing the four years of college into two parts. The first two years would be dedicated to teaching what he calls the “twelve cognitive processes that underlie learning” (such as prediction, modeling, planning, negotiation, teamwork) and the last two years to instruction in specific subjects.8
I do not believe the Navy needs Schank’s approach to ensure a better officer-candidate pool for the future. But a major should be winnowed down to an area of concentration in the final two undergraduate years at most, an appropriately proportioned complement to the main course, the general education. Today, beyond the STEM major requirement, the Navy says very little about what it really wants an officer candidate to learn in college. Ostensibly, this should be accomplished at the very least in the Naval Academy’s Officer Professional Competencies Manual, yet in the most recent edition (2011) the Academic Standards required to be a commissioned naval officer are so devoid of substance as to be practically useless. The manual lists only four academic standards for officers:
A. Demonstrate a proficiency of the English language through usage, both spoken and written. B. Know the major developments in the United States and world history with comprehension of the political, military, diplomatic and Naval history of the United States. C. Demonstrate the ability to solve quantitative problems in a logical manner. D. Demonstrate basic computer skills.9
Each officer community also has academic requirements listed in its annual Program Authorization memo, but these generally deal with major requirements and graduate-degree requirements. Nowhere is there any attempt to define in any detail what an officer candidate should learn and know, or any attempt to more precisely define what a well-rounded undergraduate curriculum should look like.
In the United States, students can still get one of the best—if not the best—undergraduate educations in the world. But one has to look harder for it today because it seems to exist institution-wide as a general education in very few places. Beyond its own Academy, the Navy can’t force colleges and universities to reinstate the rigorous general education, but it can demand that its officer candidates take the courses that make up one.
1. Fareed Zakaria, “Why America’s Obsession with STEM Education is Dangerous,” Washington Post, 26 March 2015, www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-stem-wont-make-us-successful/2015/03/26/5f4604f2-d2a5-11e4-ab77-9646eea6a4c7_story.html.
2. John Kaag, “A Warning from William James,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. LXI, no. 30 (10 April 2015), B10.
3. Chad Wellmon, “In Defense of Disciplines,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. LXI, no. 30 (10 April 2015), B4.
4. Leon Botstein, Jefferson’s Children: Education and the Promise of American Culture, (New York: Doubleday, 1997), found in The Love of Learning at www.bard.edu/about/loveoflearning/.
5. William R. Bowman, “Do Engineers Make Better Naval Officers?”, Armed Forces and Society, vol. 16, no. 2 (Winter 1990), 271–286. David M. Rodney, Christine H. Fox, Samuel D. Kleinman, Michael J. Moskowitz, and Mary E. Lauer, “Developing an Education Strategy for URL Officers,” Center for Naval Analyses Report CRM D0017231.A2, March 2008.
6. ADM James Stavridis, USN, and CAPT Mark Haggerot, USN, “The Heart of an Officer: Joint, Interagency, and International Operations and Navy Career Development,” Naval War College Review, vol. 62, no. 2, Spring 2008, 26–41.
7. Botstein, 1997.
8. Jeffrey J. Selingo, College (Un)Bound (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), 148–149.
9. Navy Officer Professional Core Competencies Manual, United States Naval Academy, Naval Service Training Command, September 2011, www.usna.edu/Users/oceano/pguth/core_learning_objectives/Officer%20Professional%20Core%20Competencies%20%28PCC%29%20Manual.pdf.
Captain Bray is a career Naval Intelligence officer currently serving on the staff of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, D.C.