An Officer and a Scholar

June 16, 1994|By MORRIS FREEDMAN

COLLEGE PARK — The Annapolis cheating scandal highlights again the lurking question about service academies: Why can't all career officers attend civilian colleges and universities?

Senator Russ Feingold, D., Wis., restated the issue when he recently argued for closing down the Pentagon's medical school in Bethesda, the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. He contended that the training of physicians and surgeons for the armed services could be done more economically in civilian schools.

Even more compelling than budgetary arguments to eliminate the academies are the educational and social ones.

Annapolis academic dean Robert H. Shapiro likes to call the Naval Academy ''the most highly selective university in the world.'' It accepts fewer than one in 10 applicants. Indeed, all the service academies have done much to undercut the term ''military intelligence'' as a mirth-provoking oxymoron like ''airplane food.'' They have given the country a new class of intellectuals in the tradition of European military forces. Veteran officers have doctorates or other graduate degrees. Uniformed astronauts are peers of their civilian colleagues. Top-flight high school graduates have been choosing service academies over the Ivy League.

How justly do the academies serve their students? Like other ''trade schools'' embedded in traditional campuses (for architects or accountants, say), the academies offer a smattering of literature, philosophy, history and the sciences. But they concentrate on engineering. No service academy has a Phi Beta Kappa chapter. Humanities at trade schools may mean skimming famous names from Plato to Picasso.

I remember a colleague serving as consultant on teaching time at the Air Force Academy. ''I wonder,'' he said, ''whether 20 minutes on American poets of the 19th century is really enough.'' ''Right,'' snapped the colonel in charge. ''Make that a half-hour.''

No doubt many service professors are as good as professors at civilian institutions. But teaching at the academies (and learning) is largely done by rote. Students cultivate prodigious memories but little else. I know one who memorized every problem and its answer in his calculus text without ever grasping the mathematical principles. Some, of course, simply learn to cheat. And occasionally faculty admit to lowering standards to meet graduation quotas or the needs of football or basketball teams.

In short, the academies fail in many of the same ways that civilian institutions do. But where civilian lapses may compel us to examine the efficacy of our educational system or of our moral and ethical safeguards, service-academy violations threaten the safety of the country. An ill-educated professional football player may not be able to read or understand his contract; an illiterate or innumerate Navy, Army, Marine or Coast Guard officer may imperil mates and mission.

One officer wrote to the Washington Post: ''I graduated from the Army ROTC [Reserve Officer Training Corps] program at Yale University in 1961, hopeful that I would bring to the army the values and integrity I had gathered during my college years. . . . Why should the great private universities not influence the military leadership of our country?''

Dispersing officer candidates in ROTC programs throughout the country need not mean abandoning the training, study and research the academies specialize in. They could readily become vital post-graduate centers, as could the Uniformed Services medical school.

Combining the several academies into one, as is occasionally suggested, also might yield economies, but it would not achieve for our professional officers the broadly based education most of their non-service, college-educated contemporaries enjoy.

Obviously any sweeping change of the service academies poses delicate challenges. We would have to abandon or alter the traditional Army-Navy athletic rivalry. We would have to consider transforming the Virginia Military Institute and the Citadel, important quasi-public academies in the South for training officers, which still do not admit women. Groups oppose ROTC, which is subject to the national rules governing enlistment of gays.

But the depth and breadth of education of the nation's officer elite should remain our paramount challenge, and meeting it should prevail over lesser challenges.

Morris Freedman is professor emeritus of English at the University of Maryland.

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