According to the Naval Academy’s website, “At least 65 percent of those graduates commissioned into the U.S. Navy must complete academic majors in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics disciplines.”1 This push to have a majority of midshipmen graduate with STEM majors underestimates the value of a liberal arts education. The humanities offer important skills needed to interact beyond the computer and mechanical systems the Navy operates. The service should reconsider the mandated proportion of STEM majors at the Academy.
David Brooks, an author who examines society and human interaction, explains the significance of humanities studies and notes society’s tendency to overstate the importance of technical analysis:
Modern society has created a giant apparatus for the cultivation of the hard skills, while failing to develop the moral and emotional faculties down below. Children are coached on how to jump through a thousand scholastic hoops. Yet by far the most important decisions they will make are about whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise, and how . . . to control impulses. On these matters, they are almost entirely on their own. . . . We are good at teaching technical skills, but when it comes to the most important things, like character, we have almost nothing to say.2
The U.S. Naval Academy’s mission is to produce leaders with the skills to overcome the difficulties they will face in the fleet. Reducing the focus on STEM courses is an unpopular opinion at the Academy, but it is important to entertain opposing ideas to ensure we come up with the best solution. In his controversial 2014 article “America’s Military Academies Are Seriously Flawed,” W.J. Astore wrote, “A technical emphasis may make sense for Air Force test pilots or Navy nuclear engineers; it does not make sense for Marine or Army lieutenants patrolling the mountains of Afghanistan. Nor does it make sense in counterinsurgency warfare and nation-building operations, which involve soft skills and judgment rather than kinetic action and calculation.”3 While most people would not agree with Astore’s claim that the service academies are “seriously flawed,” there is no question that the future leaders of the nation and its military need an education that gives them an upper hand when operating in the real world.
Humanities courses, such as political science and history, teach future leaders about the world in which they one day will lead. So why does the naval service value students who practice crunching numbers over those who learn about the world and its dynamic problems? Navy Lieutenant Thomas Thomas, a calculus professor at the Naval Academy, sees little difference between STEM and humanities majors. “In my opinion, the best military officers are people who are focused on their course work, whatever it may be,” Thomas explained. “They have learned how to think and adapt to a changing environment.”4
There is no data to support a claim that a STEM major produces midshipmen who are better at operating technical equipment in the fleet or creates superior naval officers. “On a case by case basis, the governing factor really depends on the midshipman’s level of effort,” Thomas added. A midshipman’s success in the fleet is determined by how hard he or she is willing to work. If midshipmen are focused on areas in which they are interested, they have a better opportunity to excel and develop the characteristics of superior officers.
Lieutenant Colonel Amy McGrath, a Marine aviator who teaches political science at the Naval Academy, believes “the reason why the STEM mandate exists is that the leaders of this nation continually see a problem with Americans growing up and not having the STEM background.”5 When it comes to the push for STEM, however, McGrath is “not convinced that it needs to flow into the service academies. I think there is enough technical stuff here that I’m not sure why you have to say that a specific percentage has to be STEM.” Greater STEM education in the United States could help address the nation’s overall technical deficiencies, but it remains to be seen whether that same push belongs in an institution whose main goal is to build leaders of character.
The Navy does need individuals with technical backgrounds to build and innovate, but it does not necessarily have to be 65 percent of the brigade. More midshipmen should be in majors that build the skills they will need to go on to lead in joint staff and strategy positions. McGrath, for example, says her political science major helped her as a leader to “understand the context of what our units and ultimately our forces were doing.” Her knowledge of international relations helped her understand her mission at hand, giving her the tools she needed to lead her Marines. “The military is an instrument of political power,” she explained. “It is one of the elements of national power, but the use of force doesn’t sit by itself. It has to be integrated into the larger political structure of what you’re trying to do worldwide.”
When asked if the Brigade of Midshipmen had sufficient knowledge and understanding of the rest of the world or other cultures, Thomas put it simply: “No, I do not.” McGrath concurred when asked if her midshipmen had a solid understanding of world relationships. “No, I think that it is a function of American society,” she said. “We, as Americans, don’t have a good understanding of world current events.” The students who come to the Academy are representative of U.S. citizens overall. While it has been observed that Americans lack both world knowledge and technical skills, there has been a push to improve only the latter.
The Naval Academy can do a better job preparing midshipmen for their futures by giving humanities studies the attention they deserve. Retired Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Joe Thomas, who has a master’s in strategic studies, international relations, a doctorate in leadership, and is as a senior fellow in the Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the U.S. Naval Academy, observed: “As technology changes, humans don’t change. Reading from ancient texts in humanities courses is still as beneficial now as it has always been at any point in time because human beings don’t fundamentally change.”6 Humanities majors always will be applicable when it comes to dealing with human interaction. Military officers can apply the lessons they learn in humanities courses to problems they certainly will face as leaders.
A liberal education is advantageous to working and leading around the world, Dr. Thomas explains. “Having cross-cultural competence is a big part of leadership. It is the ability to move seamlessly in environments unlike your own,” he adds. Regardless of whether a midshipman goes into the Navy or Marine Corps, he or she will be a part of an international fighting force. More priority should be placed on the humanities to ensure midshipmen are preparing for leadership on the international stage. “For midshipmen who don’t have an extensive background in humanities and social sciences, there may be a gap in their abilities because of a gap in what they were exposed to [at the Academy],” Dr. Thomas cautions. While STEM majors offer technical thinking skills, humanities foster skills related to the human dynamic. Humanities warrant an elevated level of prominence at the Academy because of their ability to develop the leadership skills the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps need.
The House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations examined the education provided by the U.S. Naval Academy as part of a 2010 hearing.6 Congress had determined that language studies were essential for the U.S. military to conduct international operations. “The Naval Academy, unlike the Military Academy and Air Force Academy, does not require STEM majors to take any foreign language,” observed then-subcommittee chairman Vic Snyder (D-AR) in questions submitted after the hearing. “This seems incongruous with the growing importance of language skills in maritime operations. Given the Academy’s goal of graduating 65 percent STEM majors, what is the Navy’s rationale for the majority of its Academy graduates entering the service with no foreign language proficiency?” Representing the Navy, Rear Admiral Daniel Holloway replied that the Academy’s academic program “best serves the skills needed by officers to support the nation’s maritime missions.”
The STEM majors mandate is based on the notion that individuals with technical degrees will perform better in the technically advancing Navy. The problem is that overloading curriculum with STEM takes away from the human aspect of being a naval officer.
The Naval Academy could produce midshipmen who are more geographically and culturally sound by reducing the emphasis on STEM and allowing for more liberally educated midshipmen to graduate as leaders of the nation. Air Force Colonel Jesse Gatlin wrote in 1968:
We must . . . concern ourselves with attracting and keeping young men whose intellects are superior and with educating them not only technically in the skills of the military profession but liberally in the history and values of our open, ever changing, intellectually challenging culture. The humanities are an indispensable part of such an education, because they concern themselves not so much with the utilitarian and practical aspects of life as with the distinctively human and individually significant problems which every man (and especially those who would lead other men) must face and attempt to resolve. For a young man to become a good officer, he must first become a good human being.8
No midshipman should graduate feeling he or she could have been better prepared to lead in the nation’s Navy or Marine Corps. This is not always the case. In a 2016 article in Proceedings, Navy Captain William Bray recounted reading a critique of higher education early in his career that made him reassess his Academy education:
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. . . . 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.”9
The Academy is where midshipmen should receive the best education to prepare them for their naval careers. The goal to graduate a majority of STEM majors and the overall emphasis put on STEM majors are counter to the mission of the Naval Academy. It is time to reevaluate the STEM-first stance when developing officers of the future.
1. U.S. Naval Academy, Majors and Courses, www.usna.edu/Academics/Majors-and-Courses/.
2. David Brooks, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (New York: Random House, 2011).
3. W. J. Astore, “America’s Military Academies Are Seriously Flawed,” The Contrary Perspective, 17 December 2014. https://contraryperspective.com/2014/12/17/americas-military-academies-are-seriously-flawed/.
4. Lieutenant Thomas Thomas, U.S. Navy, interview with the author, 29 February 2016.
5. Lieutenant Colonel Amy McGrath, U.S. Marine Corps, interview with the author, 7 March 2016.
6. Lieutenant Colonel Joseph J. Thomas, U.S. Marine Corps (Retired), interview with the author, 2 May 2016.
7. House Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Oversight an Investigations, “Beyond the Defense Language Transformation Roadmap: Bearing the Burden for Today’s Educational Shortcomings,” 111th Cong., 1st sess., 29 June 2010, 65, www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CHRG-111hhrg61632/pdf/CHRG-111hhrg61632.pdf.
8. Colonel Jesse C. Gatlin, U.S. Air Force, “The Role of the Humanities in Educating the Professional Officer,” Air University Review, November-December 1968, http://www.au.af.mil/au/afri/aspj/airchronicles/aureview/1968/nov-dec/gatlin.html.
9. Captain William R. Bray, U.S Navy, “The Well-Educated Officer,” Proceedings 142, no. 1, (January 2016).