Program provides Mids' crash course in ethics

Five-year effort helps academy overcome drug, other scandals

August 08, 1999|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

In the film "Das Boot," a submarine captain decides not to court-martial his friend who abandoned his post and disobeyed orders during a battle.

Naval Academy senior John Elliott clicks "stop" on the VCR and asks a classroom of plebes whether the captain is guilty of fraternization.

The answer is yes. Something to do with an "unduly familiar" relationship, says a plebe. Elliott explains that the Navy bans such relationships between superiors and subordinates.

"Unduly familiar. Can everybody say that? It's going to become a buzzword for your career," Elliott says. "In the Navy, it's all about character."

Character. Ethics. Integrity. They all have become buzzwords of a new era at the Naval Academy.

A few years ago, such words weren't often heard among the 4,000-plus students of this waterfront Annapolis campus.

Newspaper headlines described the moral status of the school this way:

"Midshipman pleads guilty to LSD charges."

"Current, former Mids indicted; five face federal charges involving car-theft ring."

"Midshipman held on sex abuse charges."

Into that caldron came a group of outsiders, such as Nancy Sherman, a 47-year-old, Harvard-trained professor who helped strengthen ethics classes, ethics lectures and ethics seminars.

Plebes attend character development and honor classes, taught by upperclassmen such as Elliott. Sophomores go to a weekly ethics class. Juniors attend an annual ethics dinner.

All students must attend character development seminars and lectures by notables such as U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat.

Last year, a Center for the Study of Professional Military Ethics opened.

"It [ethics] is here to stay, and it's become part of the way the Naval Academy develops a midshipman," said Sherman, a former distinguished chairwoman in ethics who spent two years in Annapolis. She spoke while restacking a wall of bookshelves -- "The Politics of Aristotle" and "Kant's Dialectic" -- in her new Georgetown University office last week.

The concerted five-year effort to weave ethical and moral training with the marching and push-ups has changed the way midshipmen are taught at the 152-year-old school.

Skepticism continues

But the approach still meets with skepticism and cynicism from some midshipmen and alumni who view ethics classes as little more than a sop to an accusing public.

In April, departing Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Charles Krulak told an alumni group in Washington that the "tarnished" reputation of the school was slowly being repaired, but that the ethics classes were too theoretical. He called the classes "mumbo jumbo about Freud, Kant and utilitarianism, but short on straight talk."

It hasn't been a cakewalk into the world of Aristotle and Kant.

Lt. John Winship of the character development department said the school has had to work hard to sell officers-to-be on "touchy-feely" notions of moral reasoning and ethical leadership.

The "Kumbaya stuff," he called it. That has required repackaging, renaming ethics "leadership" lessons.

"If you call it leadership, then they're on board, even though it's the same thing," he said.


Even more pernicious has been cynicism among students, some of whom consider the ethics strengthening "a politically correct knee-jerk reaction to the Baltimore Sun," Winship said.

Dan Post, a junior who helped Elliott teach the recent class of plebes, said that kind of cynicism is part of academy life. Mids burdened with pre-dawn exercise sessions and sunset parade marches bristle about another intrusion on their limited free time -- including ethics seminars and lectures.

"I think at a place like this, you'll never eliminate that" cynicism, Post said.

But Al Pierce, director of the Center for the Study of Professional Military Ethics and a former assistant secretary of defense, said there are signs that ethics is seeping into the institution's culture. He said he was surprised last year to see the "Big Five" -- the school's top five officers, including superintendent Vice Adm. John R. Ryan -- at a dinner honoring the six sophomores who had written the year's best ethics papers.

It's too soon to assess whether the emphasis on ethics will make the academy scandal-free. But much has changed since cheating scandals and felony arrests ended the careers of a number of young officers in training.


These days, the academy is a place where officers from around the world discuss the ethical implications of bombing Yugoslavia. A place of brown-bag ethics lunches. A place where midshipmen attend "Friday night ethics at the movies" to discuss the moral issues of such films as "Breaker Morant."

It began in 1994 when Adm. Charles R. Larson was appointed superintendent and told to clean up the school in the wake of a scandal in which scores of Mids were accused of cheating on an exam.

Sherman was invited to help develop an ethics class. She said she found it odd that the school emphasized "honor, courage, commitment," words etched into the stone of some buildings, but did not teach ethics.

"It was more assumed and unspoken," she said. "The punitive system was in place. The judicial system was in place. But the educational system wasn't in place. By and large, philosophical ethics was not their cup of tea."

Other problems

Another problem was the mathematical and military atmosphere of the school, where most students major in engineering or aeronautics.

People trained to use formulas to reach conclusions considered deep thought and reflection "soft."

"Ethics is peculiarly a newfangled thing at the academy," Sherman said.

"But I really think that's what the Naval Academy should be fostering: how to lead with vision and how to follow in a way that's not blind," she said.

"It's not the case that all's fair in love and war."

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