If the U.S. Naval Academy’s curriculum were to be created today from scratch in a historical vacuum, the current course of study and requirements likely would be inverted. Rather than having a heavy science-technology-engineering-mathematics (STEM) focus (presently, 65 percent of midshipmen major in STEM), the curriculum would be more of a humanities-based education. It is widely agreed that the main components of officership are writing and critical thinking, which are best developed through education in the humanities. These attributes clearly are within the intent of the Naval Academy’s mission to “graduate leaders . . . to assume the highest responsibilities of command, citizenship and government." The Naval Academy should lessen STEM course requirements and require a more humanities-based education to better fulfill its mission and prepare its graduates to be naval leaders.
The military is a human business, and most of the technical work is handled by non-officers or dedicated warrants. An officer in the fleet would benefit more from having a mandatory class on world religions than an understanding of calculus, and his or her diverse subordinates would benefit from their officer’s worldly understanding, too. Likewise, a future Marine officer would be better served by an extra history or insurgency studies course than he or she would be by chemistry. Physics will not help a division officer understand the background of his or her third-class petty officer that immigrated from Africa, nor will it help him or her explain to a division why the Navy is involved in the current conflicts.
The Academy is located about 25 miles from Washington, D.C., however, few political science internships exist for midshipmen. The best ones are exceedingly competitive—roughly eight internships are available to all humanities majors (which make up 30 percent of upperclassmen). The political science internships are unfunded, and the Academy requires those interns to reside in Bancroft Hall for the duration of their placement. This limits potential participants to those who have cars, as public transportation between Annapolis and D.C. is close to nonexistent.
Since they must reside in Bancroft Hall, midshipmen participating in an internship that begins at 0700 must leave the Academy by 0500 to make it to the Pentagon on time. Parking is not provided for interns. Even for internships beginning later in the morning, the average daily commute from Annapolis and back takes nearly four hours per day.
On top of these sacrifices for a modicum of work experience, interns must give up their only block of leave to participate. Humanities internships should be allowed to replace a training evolution, as is done for most STEM internships at the Academy, so midshipmen attempting to gain experience in their major do not have to lose their block of leave.
In a June 2016 Proceedings article titled “Read. Write. Fight.”, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson argued that intellectual debate, reading, and writing are the critical components to making our Navy more powerful. This sentiment is echoed by Defense Secretary James Mattis and Naval Institute Board Chair retired Admiral James Stavridis. Yet the Academy’s course of study is overwhelmingly technical, a relic of the curriculum that was relevant in the late 1800s when Academy graduates had to understand and operate steam plants. As coal has been replaced, so should the curriculum of the coal era.
Academy graduates are expected by the public and their chain of command to understand and analyze an increasingly complicated geopolitical situation, yet this is not reflected in the current curriculum of the Academy. The modern Navy is involved in everything from peacekeeping to providing basic governance to preparing for high-end conflict. Knowledge of calculus 3 will not solve crises in Afghanistan or Libya. Understanding the complexities of cultures, history, and government, however, can help solve these complicated problems. A 40 percent STEM graduation requirement would adequately fulfill the current needs of the Navy for the nuclear power community, rather than the 65 percent requirement currently in place.
From the required courses to internships, the structure of Naval Academy academics is counterintuitive. The institution should better leverage its proximity to Washington, D.C., and its connections in the city to improve the course of study for humanities majors, and it should consider removing some of the excess STEM courses and replace them with humanities-based classes. Such a change would better prepare midshipmen to navigate the diverse and changing world our in which the Navy and Marine Corps operate.