U.S. Naval Academy Liberal Arts Education

It was a helicopter parent’s dream: parent’s weekend at the Naval Academy!

This treat happens only once during your midshipman’s four-year stay at the Naval Academy.  You arrive Thursday evening for a spirit rally for a football game – in this case, it was for the game against East Carolina University.

Friday morning you come back early and you get to follow your son or daughter around all day, sitting in on classes, eating lunch together in the famous King Hall, watching him or her march in a parade, and generally being a nosy, buzzing, hovering parent.

Dave and Ryan discuss Digital to Analog Lab Exercise
Dave and Ryan discuss Digital to Analog Lab Exercise

First up was the electrical engineering course. Ryan is a history major, but all Naval Academy students get a full year of electrical engineering, not to mention a full strength dose of math and physics. The lecture of the day was on digital to analog converters. The professor was a Navy commander and an active engineer helping in the research and design of state of the art communications systems for the Navy. His lecture was excellent. It covered a lot of ground in a hurry, but was very clear and did a nice job of articulating key concepts.  Following the lecture, there was a lab exercise in which the students made measurements on an actual R-2R resistor ladder circuit. I am sure that the class of humanities major students felt like they were drinking from a fire hose, but I thought that the instructor hit exactly the right balance of concept versus detail for this set of students.

Next up was a visit to Ryan’s class on the imagery of ghosts and goblins in Japanese history. Again, the instruction was excellent. The lecture of the day was on the Boshin war at the end of the Edo period. This civil war led to the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Meiji Restoration. The Boshin War is an intricate topic, but the instructor gave a lively and interesting presentation which was clear and easy to follow. Not only did he do a nice job of laying out all the foreign and domestic forces at play, but in keeping with the overall course material, he covered a few heinous political crimes that led to famous legends of ghost haunting.

Following the aforementioned lunch, we attended a course taught in Japanese by a Captain in the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces…. [In keeping with Japan’s pacifist constitution which was imposed by the MacArthur administration after World War II, Japan does not have a “military” and (heaven forbid!) certainly does not have a “Navy” All Japan has is a modest “maritime self-defense force” with helicopter carriers, destroyers, submarines, mine sweepers, etc… which if it WERE a Navy would be second in size only to the United States Navy…]    While nominally a language course, the actual content of this course covers a lot of ground about the structure of the Japanese military, the geopolitics in East Asia, Japanese naval strategy and so on. The course would be a reasonable load in English; Ryan and several others are taking it in Japanese.

The final class of the day was the leadership class. Here the instructor opted not to do a lecture, but rather hold a question and answer discussion for the parents about what leadership means to the Navy, what the learning goals of the class are and so on.

Saturday we followed up with front row seats in the end zone for the East Carolina football game. It was an exciting game and our seats were fabulous. Navy almost beat East Carolina with a touchdown being disqualified on a dubious technicality in the last 60 seconds of the game.

After the game, we attended the tailgate party for Ryan’s company. What? tailgate after the game?  Well, yes.  The Naval midshipmen have to march onto the field before each game. Frankly speaking, the marching skills of the Naval midshipmen are not that great. The Navy burns up about one Marine Corps drill sergeant per year who runs around sputtering, ranting, and raving in a futile effort to whip the midshipmen into shape. After some number of months, these Marine Corps drill sergeants end up being taken away in a straitjacket.  Needless to say, the Naval midshipmen march on parade is difficult. It the midshipmen were allowed to get drunk before marching onto the field, it wouldn’t work at all!  As such, the tailgate parties are after the game, not before.

It was a fun weekend, but the experience is germane to a more serious debate we are having nationally at the moment. The debate is about whether Liberal Arts education is still relevant. With the increasing emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)  some politicians and pundits are forecasting the demise of Liberal Arts education. Needless to say, the Liberal Arts professors are panicked and outraged. Lots of counter argument speeches are being given, notably a recent talk by Martha J. Kanter, undersecretary, U.S. Department of Education

Liberal Arts is certainly important. At UC San Diego, I chose Revelle College,  the “Renaissance Man” college. Revelle College’s Humanities curriculum was much more substantial than that of most normal universities. However, I found the material so interesting, I opted to take two full years of it, instead of the single year that was required. The additional intense (and not gentle) writing instruction has served me well in my technical career. Today, most of our engineering programs are too packed with technical detail courses which could be slimmed down and a woefully inadequate amount of writing. We tend to turn out new graduate engineers who could not write a one-page specification of something even if their lives depended on it. Nevertheless, the Liberal Arts community is dancing around the embarrassing problem that their departments have become havens for students who don’t want to study hard and who certainly don’t want to learn to think clearly.

The Navy and the Marine Corps certainly value Liberal Arts. In fact, I have learned that the Marine Corps actually prefers Liberal Arts majors for officers who need to lead troops into battle. Nevertheless, neither the Navy nor the Marine Corps can afford to have an officer who freezes like a deer in the headlights when a problem involving computer technology comes up. Likewise, neither Navy nor Marine Corps can afford to have officers who are afraid of tackling complex problems or working hard to finish something by a certain deadline. Hence the full load of math and even electrical engineering courses. Even for history majors.

The civilian Liberal Arts university community would do well to take a close look at the curriculum offered to Liberal Arts majors at the service academies and make some hard decisions about toughening up their curricula and making them more relevant to today’s highly technological society.

Otherwise, Liberal Arts really will become a quaint relic of a halcyon, simpler past.

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