Does the Navy Really Want Innovators?

By Marcus Jones, PhD

In recent decades, the hallmarks of good naval officers have been intelligence, conscientiousness, and hardiness—qualities not necessarily associated with open-mindedness or an innovative spirit. In other words, good officer candidates are not necessarily people inclined to “think outside the box.” If anything, they learn to nest snugly inside whatever constraints the metaphorical box represents. Innovation is disruptive, and people given to disruptive innovation generally find the hierarchies and collective values of effective military organizations uncomfortable.

If inspiring “creativity and agility in the human dimension” is a high priority, it might be helpful to ask how the Navy and Marine Corps should motivate people selected, educated, and incentivized to conform to think differently, without undermining the services’ vital cultures of hierarchy and cohesion. A few weeks ago, I spoke with one of the Naval Academy’s most distinguished recent graduates. His academic record is flawless; he earned an A in every course he took, and he tied for first place in the academic order of merit. One of those As was for a challenging propulsion engineering class. I was impressed.

“You must know quite a bit about thermodynamics,” I said.

“Not at all,” he replied. “I hardly remember anything.”

When I asked if he thought he could pass a test on the course’s basic material, he shrugged.

“If I had some time to review first, I could probably manage.” In other words, if he could relearn the material before taking the test, he might pass the exam.

Plenty of evidence suggests that this model midshipman is typical of elite U.S. college graduates. Most hardly remember substantive information or correctly use formulas or techniques from their courses even a short time after completion. As Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa point out in a penetrating study, many college students do not improve measurably in their capacity for complex reasoning, critical thinking, and written communication. Instead of such “transfer of learning” effects—how things learned in one intellectual domain enhance others—research demonstrates the grim fact that people generally learn very specific things by practicing them narrowly and relentlessly.

University faculty and administrators like to believe that graduates “learned how to think” or “learned how to learn.” As much as it pains this history professor to admit it, passing through courses unrelated to targeted skills and competencies does not convincingly show this. Rather, students perform well because they have learned the specific things teachers made a point of, and because the school admitted high-functioning, conscientious young people who readily meet short-term expectations. We cannot prove that passing four semesters of a foreign language or two semesters of physics, electrical engineering, or any other subject makes a 22-year-old a superior aviator, surface warfare officer, or Marine.

Still, I refuse to abandon my belief that a Naval Academy education improves our graduates' intellectual skills. Evidence suggests that higher education improves somewhat the measured intelligence of smart people, even if the improvement is difficult to disentangle from the gains that smart, diligent people realize just by growing from ages 18 to 22. Our students seem to read, write, and speak better, and attack mental problems more rigorously at the end of their educations than at the beginning. The process itself has value. A Naval Academy midshipman enters a new classroom with a different instructor teaching different material to a new mix of students nearly 50 times. At the least, students learn to adapt to the progression of pedagogical novelty and cope with change. At best, students grasp that they have sampled but the thin edge of intellectual talent and content that a high-quality institution offers, are humbled by the complexity of the human condition, and inspired to grow intellectually for the rest of their lives.

The Navy does not test graduates in specific ways a year or two after graduation to determine if they learned anything in the courses they took. Given the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on the education of a single midshipmen, it is interesting that the service conducts no comprehensive, uniform assessment of intelligence, reasoning capacity, or other specific intellectual aptitude at the beginning and end of the process.

The reasonable implication is that the Navy neither wants nor needs the insights that such assessment would provide, probably because measurable intellectual aptitudes or specific knowledge from their courses are not as important as other things for midshipmen’s potential as officers. Assuming that students learn less than we think, forget much of what they putatively learn, and realize uncertain gains in basic intellectual skills, what justifies their four years at the Naval Academy? After all, if the education counted for so much, simple tests would validate their knowledge at any point in their development or allow the Navy to rely on less expensive graduates of other institutions.

Something much more important happens at the Naval Academy. The greater part of their time at the Academy consists in what education researchers call “signaling,” or the conveying of information about the midshipmen’s conformity with norms, expectations, and assumptions to stakeholders in the institution who then credential them with a degree. The Navy interprets the degree as a way to distinguish better officer prospects from worse.

Consider an easy illustration. A few weeks ago, a handful of the plebes (first-year midshipmen) in my naval history class filed into the classroom carrying their overloaded backpacks like briefcases. A few virtually dragged them.

“Why on earth are you dragging those things around?” I asked. “Why not wear them, like sensible people?”

“Our company prohibited us from carrying them on our backs,” one answered. “We have to lug them around like this. Ugh.”

What kind of person would follow such arbitrary rules? The kind that the Naval Academy and military most want. Imagine students at Oberlin College following such instructions—most ordinary college students certainly would not. The Naval Academy appeals to a certain kind of conformist, a term sure to turn off anybody steeped in pop-business innovation discourse. But to the Academy, conformity is a positive attribute. It refers to people who figured out by their mid-teens that they value the approval of authority figures in academic, athletic, and disciplinary ways and who are willing to demonstrate that they will continue to work for approval. They can get a college education at lots of institutions. But at the Academy they invest in the higher idea that duty, honor, good behavior, discipline, and accountability will help them achieve positive outcomes together. The Navy tells them how to wear their hair, which clothes to wear and when, how to express themselves and interact, and how they will spend almost all their time.

Midshipmen are not generally the curious, untraditional, and creative kids who explore and revel in the speculative, the unfamiliar, or the mysterious. Indeed, the Naval Academy has devised lots of ways to filter out those temperamentally disposed to break apart “traditional paradigms,” as the Undersecretary put it. The students spend four years demonstrating that they can conform to the unique demands and expectations of military leadership—and they get graded on it.

In a popular culture that worships innovation, creativity, and authenticity—or at least finds great purchase in the terms themselves—the idea of conformity seems abhorrent or weak-minded. But conformity to the norms and values and purposes of our institutions, especially the U.S. Constitution, is the most important characteristic of military officers. Conformity is also essential in the dangerous and difficult work these officers will perform in demanding and adverse circumstances. Hierarchies based on lines of authority and shared assumptions, more rigid than those found elsewhere, are vital to survival and success.

The surface fleet appropriately has little tolerance for junior officers standing bridge watch who disregard inconvenient rules and make up risky new ways of going about the business of seakeeping. Submarine officers master nuclear reactor startup procedures according to intricate and rigorous checklists, enforced ruthlessly for the sake of maximum safety. The Naval Academy works to cultivate people suited to leadership in conditions of confusion and uncertainty, to functioning within prescribed boundaries to achieve results, and to seeing order in chaos. Through long historical experience the military services have winnowed the preferred psychological traits that good officers should have and built mechanisms to cultivate them.

There are many wonderful qualities midshipmen would exhibit in a perfect world, but when forced to compromise, the Navy and Marine Corps value conscientiousness, agreeableness, and hardiness above all. Intelligence is important but is valued no differently than it is in higher education generally. Conscientious people, however, are thought to possess a high capacity for organization, persistence, and motivation in goal-directed behavior. Such people are dependable, accountable, and competent—important traits for a competent officer.

The military services are hardly alone in looking for conscientious leaders. Most private enterprises and organizations value the same in job candidates, and to varying degrees, college education in general is less a matter of learning useful job skills than of signaling a student’s ability to manage his or her life in a way that led to graduation. A degree is a seal of approval that identifies a potentially good worker. It demonstrates that the applicant passed a certain number of classes, completed some reading, wrote papers, and did not succumb to the myriad temptations and diversions that derail so many others. (In that sense, the Naval Academy is an easier institution to get through than a normal college. Rules and prohibitions go some way to ensuring that Naval Academy midshipmen confront fewer temptations and diversions.)

The demands of military service are intense, and Naval Academy graduates require uncommon hardiness. Hardiness refers to a pronounced commitment to responsibility and work, a strong belief in a person’s ability to control events and influence outcomes, and a continuous willingness to tackle whatever challenges life offers. The walls and common spaces of the institution are filled with prominent references to and images of notable historical examples of hardy officers, presumably to encourage midshipmen to identify with their hardiness.

The professional military culture of the Brigade of Midshipmen places particular emphasis on agreeableness. People who exhibit high levels of that trait are trustworthy, honest, and altruistic. Research suggests an inverse relationship between agreeableness and innovation in individuals—those with lower agreeableness tend to be more innovative. The trait has a great deal to do with how people conduct social relationships. Agreeable people, while not necessarily able innovators, are strongly suited to implementing innovations borne elsewhere.

The Undersecretary’s remarks also suggest a desire to accentuate qualities associated with certain other psychological factors, such as open-mindedness. Open-minded people are receptive to novelty, willing to buck convention, and possess the independence of mind typical of notable innovators, who often are neurotic and exhibit an edgy sense of urgency while rejecting established norms. They understand risk differently than highly conscientious people, if they take it into account at all. It is hard to imagine notably open-minded and neurotic individuals flourishing at the Naval Academy, to say nothing of the ruthlessly conformist warfare communities of the Navy and Marine Corps.

This begs the question of how to identify, recruit, and retain such people without dramatically changing the Academy and officer corps. Privileging new virtues must come at a cost to the ones formerly most highly prized. They coexist harmoniously in only a marginal number of people.

None of this should be taken to mean that an emphasis on innovation, creativity, and change is destined for failure. Officers refine established methods every day to achieve greater efficiencies and economies of effect; tinkering around the margins of routine is a natural human approach to improvement. The nuclear Navy ranks “a questioning attitude” as one of the touchstones of its highly successful culture—albeit within the context of a formal process for the sake of managing risk not innovation.

Military officers in the past have, on occasion, achieved big outcomes through invention and innovation, smashing norms to yield revolutionary solutions. If an organization as big and rich as the Navy throws enough people and money at a problem, it is a safe bet that solutions will emerge. But it should not confuse the results with what is optimal or efficient, nor should it fail to appreciate the costs. Expecting innovation from people selected for conscientiousness, hardiness, and agreeableness is similar to expecting good baseball players to win a hockey game. The Naval Academy certainly can be changed to select for and cultivate different attributes, but the Navy should be frank about the tradeoffs.

Marcus Jones teaches history at the U.S. Naval Academy.

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