Mids navigate modern times

Academy: Navy culture and tradition adjust from from the era of the pay phone and slide rule

March 10, 2000|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

For almost a century, the most advanced technology in a midshipman's room at the Naval Academy was a clock. No stereos, no televisions. The school's 4,000 dorm rooms are still not wired for phones -- a testament to the institution's desire to minimize distractions.

This year, however, more students than ever arrived at the Naval Academy gates with cell phones. And their school-issued personal computers, equipped with the most advanced scholastic technology on the market, offer movies on digital video display (DVD) players, compact disc players with stereo surround sound and television on their in-house "TV tuner."

For the academy, long a bastion of austerity and rigidity, these luxuries are changing many traditions of the midshipman's life.

Where students once were limited to designated phone hours, forced to wait in line outside pay phone rooms to call family and friends, students now linger in dorm hallways and courtyards chatting on cell phones whenever they have a free moment.

The decades-old dorm "wardroom," open only to seniors and their guests and the only place to watch movies and television, is almost a relic, as seniors and lowerclassmen say they prefer to watch movies on their computers in their rooms. And the freshmen, or plebes, no longer have to relay messages between upperclassmen's rooms; some upperclassman say they would rather e-mail each other.

While professors and midshipmen say the computers are indispensable -- part of the academy's effort to stay competitive with the nation's best colleges -- academy officials acknowledge that the technology is fast making many century-old rules inadequate or obsolete.

"There's nothing in the [midshipmen regulation book] that I've ever seen that says anything about DVD players," Frederik Easterly, a first-classman, or senior, said with a smile. "The beauty of the computer is, we don't have to learn how to build a radio out of a toilet paper roll like John Poindexter did when he went here."

Easterly and several other midshipmen say that academics and other requirements are so demanding that most students don't have time to waste.

Yet the issue has brought the academy to an unusual juncture, a choice between tradition and technology, two elements that school officials have envisioned as being entwined.

To many midshipmen and alumni, the rules, which stress academics and limit diversions, are the hallmark of a Naval Academy education. Generations of graduates bond over having endured "plebe year" -- a time when the school's freshmen are kept busy from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. They are told when to study, eat, sleep and have "mandatory play."

And while attempting to adapt rules that did not anticipate portable phones and computers that convert to entertainment consoles, academy officials are struggling to define what is "entertainment" and what is "learning."

Administrators have banned plebes from using their computers for anything but schoolwork, and from using cell phones at all. But those rules are hard to police when headphones and a click of the mouse can disguise almost any computer activity. Some students know of midshipmen who have encrypted their computer's accessories, so administrators can't find them.

"They may be in there day-trading for all we know," said Capt. Brad Hanner, the 23rd company officer in charge of a group of 130 midshipmen. "But whether or not you can regulate this, you will find out at the end of the semester who's been doing what they've been told to do.

"It's a different environment from even just six or seven years ago when I was a midshipman. Sometimes compared to these kids I feel like I'm up here rubbing two sticks together."

Computers not only connect midshipmen to each other through e-mail and chat rooms -- they connect them directly to professors who answer questions online. Students can access libraries around the world for research. Some professors issue compact discs with homework assignments and quizzes to be returned in the same manner.

The school brings top Navy researchers to lecture via satellite from a research station in Missouri, provides real-time simulations of sea battles, and re-creates advanced science experiments that could not previously be performed in the classroom.

Many midshipmen no longer subscribe to newspapers to fulfill their current events quiz requirements, choosing to log on to the Internet for news instead.

"No one is suggesting they turn it off," said Professor Rae Jean Goodman, director of teaching and learning. "It is just far too valuable for learning. You can't keep them in a cave protected. It would only make them poor officers unable to lead because of their lack of knowledge and experience."

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