Left-brain Mids buck the current Naval Academy: The artistic minority lets off steam at a school immersed in science and technology.

October 29, 1998|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

An article on Page 1A of yesterday's editions of The Sun about U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen exercising their creative urges incorrectly referred to the artistic-minded as "left-brained." Creative people are right-brained; the technically inclined are left-brained.

The Sun regrets the errors.

No textbook has a variable for pain,

No d can equal despair, no h can equal hate ...

I am drunk with what the world is not,

and no one can hear the final shot.

-- John Hendrix, sophomore chemistry major


It's not easy to show your softer side amid the rigidity, conformity and masculinity of a place like the U.S. Naval Academy.

Not that there isn't a heritage of poet-warriors in U.S. military history. Even Gen. George S. Patton was known to scribble sonnets, though they weren't particularly good.

But in the left brain/right brain dichotomy of the place, lefties have to work harder to make their art, poetry, drama and music shine through the military brusqueness.

"There's not a lot of us here, but there's definitely an undercurrent of us," said Elizabeth Okoreeh-baah, an English major who performs in the academy drama and glee clubs, keeps a journal and writes poetry for the annual literary magazine.

"There's a lot of different avenues for the other side of the brain. There's definitely a place for us here, even though some of us may still be in the closet."

In recent years the Navy has fretted over weak communication skills within its ranks and has begun to see value in drawing out left-brain midshipmen. Academy studies show that higher percentages of the poet-warrior types become admirals and nuclear submariners -- though they also run higher than normal risks of dropping out.

This summer, the academy began seeking ways to give introspective students more quiet time in an effort to prevent future admirals from quitting.

It's still not enough for some in the academy's artistic minority.

"The touchy-feely stuff gets treated as inferior," said junior Jason McAllister of Garland, Texas, vice president of the Churchill Society, a group that sponsors classic movie nights, off-campus poetry readings and visits to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Touchy-feely stuff provides a crucial outlet for some who seek escape from the pressures of intensive military training and an elite academic curriculum. For many midshipmen, athletics is the valve through which they blow off steam. Others need quiet time to read or write, or maybe an hour of song or dance.

"I think it really does help me decompress," said Tom Merkle, a senior from St. Louis, who is playing one of the leads in the drama club's coming production of "A Few Good Men."

"It's a shame there isn't more emphasis on the arts," said Lisa Berg, a junior who runs the Churchill Society and is looking into starting swing dance lessons for her group's members. "I take offense to the whole athletic focus of this place."

Outsiders might be surprised to learn that the academy has a literary magazine or a drama club, called the Masqueraders, which has been around since the school opened in 1849.

Some crusty veterans of the place and some right-brained students grouse regularly that such things exist. To their minds, the academy has no business teaching midshipmen to write sonnets or put on plays.

The school is, by necessity, focused on science and technology. Every student graduates with a bachelor of science degree. Still, some accommodations have been made for the literary-minded.

Of the 18 majors from which Mids can choose, two-thirds remain technical, such as electrical or aerospace engineering. But since the 1960s, the academy has expanded its majors program, which now includes English, history and political science.

When he was aboard ship last year, Lt. John Hussey, an English professor, would hear fellow sailors ask: "What do they waste their time teaching English for?"

"Out in the fleet, people were amazed that I majored in English," he said. "There are still folks who don't think humanities are important."

Hussey said his paycheck reflects that "stepchild complex."

"The professors in the technical fields are paid more," he said.

Only 30 percent of each class, about 300 students, is allowed to major in the humanities. And they are derogatorily referred to on campus as "bull majors."

"There is some concern that the institution loses its technical emphasis if more than 30 percent major in humanities," said Timothy O'Brien, chairman of the English department, who said there's "a clear prejudice against the English degree" in the Navy.

But O'Brien also thinks the academy breeds creativity.

"The whole system is filled with symbolic events, rites of passage," he said, like the end of freshman year climb up a lard-smeared granite monument. "All these traditions are almost mythic rites, like we read about in literature. And the parades and marches are like a form of dance, though the Mids would hate to think their parades were a form of dance."

Still, some students say that balancing their creative urges with the school's scientific and military requirements feels like mixing oil and water.

John Hendrix, a sophomore from Fresno, Calif., is a chemistry major who wants to become a scientist. But he also reads Dylan Thomas, scribbles couplets on scraps of paper and won the academy's Pitt Poetry Contest last year -- to the derision of some classmates.

"There's a very large part of me that's something completely different, and I have to recognize this," he said.

Pub Date: 10/29/98

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