WHEN IT was revealed recently that the U.S. Naval Academy had dropped its long-standing celestial navigation course, an era ended. Graduates of the Annapolis school will no longer be required to master a sextant, know how to read the navigational almanac and "sight reduction" tables or tediously crunch numbers to find their location at sea by the stars.
Instead, they will be expected to know how to punch a button.
For purists, navigating by the stars remains a vital rudiment of seamanship. For centuries, a sextant was the most sophisticated tool available. But global positioning satellites make the sextant as obsolete to the sailor as the rapier is to the soldier.
Romanticists might shed a tear. But each improvement in technology means that certain skills -- mastered over centuries and passed on between generations -- must atrophy. Midshipmen also are no longer required to learn to communicate by semaphore (flags or lights) or determine water depths with a weighted line. Modern radios and depth-finders make those skills superfluous.