Teaching Mids to act morally, ethically

5-year-old program's efficacy weighed

July 20, 2000|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Jacob Wingebach, a Naval Academy senior, is standing on a desk in front of a room full of freshmen. One of them in the front row is crying.

"It was your choice to accept your appointment to the Naval Academy," Wingebach tells them as he paces on the desk in front of 40 stressed freshmen. "You will be held to higher standards, and you will be held accountable for your actions. And you will hold each other accountable to those standards.

"That is what makes us different. That is what makes us special."

This is "honor training," where the mission is not to study ethics but to "teach someone to have ethics." It's the root of the academy's intensive character-development program that emerged five years ago to restore integrity to the school amid cheating, car theft and drug scandals.

But in the wake of allegations that two Navy football players raped a fellow midshipman at an off-campus party two weeks ago, questions have re-emerged about the program's effectiveness.

In two separate reports obtained by The Sun, graduate students who studied the academy's ethics instruction found it short on practical learning, leaving students "apathetic" and, in some cases, calling it "a waste of time." One study found the midshipmen too "controlled," without time to build character on their own.

The school administration, as well, is torn on how to teach the students to act morally and ethically. On one side are academics who believe ethics and leadership should be taught only in the dorm and on the drill field; on the other, the program's officers want to see the subject made an academic discipline, rather than a series of isolated courses.

"When I came a year and a half ago, I was struck initially by the lack of support for this program," said Lt. John Winship, who is in charge of honor training. "My role is ... to sell the program to the school. People think this is some touchy-feely aberration."

For two straight years, the character development department has lost its bid to institute a minor in leadership. It also has had to turn to the alumni association to fund a professor's chair to teach leadership.

Behavior under scrutiny

The behavior of midshipmen has often come under scrutiny, from a century ago when Annapolitans complained midshipmen were challenging them to duels, to 50 years ago when the commandant crammed the brigade into the chapel to teach them right from wrong. These days it is a more difficult and vague task - especially in a place that midshipmen say expects them to act like adults but treats them like children.

Midshipmen's lives are closely regimented, from them being told when to eat, sleep and get their hair cut, to doing their laundry and planning their schedules. Capt. Sam Locklear, school commandant, said the academy "routinely" discusses student performance, good and bad, with parents.

Much of the ethics training at the academy is addressed in classroom courses taken during the plebe and junior years. One of the reports, written by Lt. Robert Kennedy while at the Naval Postgraduate School, found that midshipmen did not absorb ethical thinking or leadership from the classes.

Many students Kennedy interviewed for his thesis said the classes' heavy workload made them "bitter" because the courses count for fewer credits, suggesting that the administration finds them unessential. In interviews this week, school officials said the classes are considered important and are weighted according to the hours they require.

Superintendent John R. Ryan said the administration is solidly behind the program.

"The tragic incidents like the one we saw earlier this month are still going to happen," Ryan said, referring to the rape allegations. "But ethics and character development are fundamental to the academy. Can they be better? I think they can. But we don't just teach ethics in a class, we teach it in [the dorm], in the brigade and on the athletic field."

Still, another thesis found similar results to Kennedy's in a broader study that looked at more than classes. Lt. Robert Thomas, who completed the study this year, compared the Naval Academy to the Military Academy and found that the students and administration at West Point took leadership and ethics training more seriously, with a more encompassing approach.

West Point cadets become leaders and role models to their peers as sophomores, whereas midshipmen must wait until their junior year, Thomas wrote. He found that more of the cadets' teachers came from a military background, providing more realistic experiences for them to study.

He also found students at the Naval Academy to be far too controlled and not left alone enough to practice their "character training."

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