Bring Middies and Johnnies together

Seminar helps bridge gap between two Annapolis schools

April 12, 2010|By Daniel de Vise, The Washington Post

The two schools sit blocks apart in downtown Annapolis. Yet students from the U.S. Naval Academy and St. John's College seldom mix.

"Johnnies" lead an insular life, devouring the "Great Books." Midshipmen follow a regimented schedule that affords few liberties and little free time. Preconceptions of Mids as crew-cut hawks and Johnnies as tie-dyed doves leave each side vaguely uneasy with the other.

The social impasse cried out for a diplomatic solution. And so began the annual Johnnie-Mid Seminar, a sort of scholarly summit. Students from both schools gather in one place to discuss a literary work, carefully chosen to appeal to the young philosophers on one side of the room and the future officers on the other. It's a chance for Johnnies to meet the midshipman beneath the cap, and for Mids to glimpse the Johnnie behind the book.

"Being a midshipman is not their entire identity; it's just a piece of it," said Sarah Pearlman, 19, a St. John's sophomore from Teaneck, N.J. "And I like to find out what the other pieces are."

St. John's is the Great Books school, chartered in 1784, where students work their way from Homer to Heidegger in the original text, but sometimes forget to wear shoes. Navy is the elite service academy, founded in 1845, a campus of 4,000 future leaders, where beds are made with hospital corners and uniforms are crisply pressed. As colleges go, these two couldn't be more different.

A group of about 60 midshipmen and three dozen Johnnies turned out for the latest seminar, held recently at historic McDowell Hall on the St. John's campus.

The St. John's contingent lurked timidly in a side room as midshipmen crowded into the reception room.

"There's a whole lot of people in uniform," one Johnnie said, peering apprehensively around a corner.

"You'll be fine," a classmate reassured her.

The two student populations aren't so different as one might think. They are mostly young, intelligent, well-educated products of the middle class, although students at the government-subsidized academy are somewhat less likely to be affluent or white and more apt to be male.

Mids and Johnnies do mix; cross-campus romances occasionally blossom, and midshipmen sometimes show up at St. John's for weekend waltz parties. (Johnnies, for their part, are not a common site on the academy grounds.)

But students on both sides say that they too seldom stop to speak, let alone socialize, in their daily travels across the Maryland capital. Navy whites give the midshipmen an air of adult authority that seems to intimidate Johnnies. Students sometimes think of the neighboring campus as enemy territory.

"Johnnies, they have rumors about us; we have rumors about them," said Ryan Clifford, 25, a third-year midshipman. "Some are true; some are false."

The Annapolis Cup, an annual croquet match between St. John's and the academy, celebrates those contrasts. The midshipmen turn out in full uniform, the Johnnies in the most outlandish costumes they can muster. Croquet is said to be the one sport at which a Johnnie can reasonably expect to beat a Mid. The 28th Cup is set for Saturday.

The Annapolis Cup was the chief meeting of Johnnies and Mids until the 2002-2003 academic year, when a group of faculty and students arranged the first Johnnie-Mid seminar.

David Garren, an associate professor of philosophy at the academy, suggested the idea to an old classmate who taught at St. John's. Garren had started a philosophy club at the academy for midshipmen who yearned for a taste of the great books. He thought a joint seminar might help the students get to know each other.

Ethan Brooks, a 22-year-old St. John's senior from Lancaster, Pa., led the delegation of Johnnies at this year's seminar. A Marine reservist with close-cropped hair, Brooks put the Mids at ease.

"I know there aren't too many of you," he told the assembled Johnnies, dressed in an eclectic array of vintage T-shirts and tweeds. "Try to intersperse yourselves. Try not to choose a class with too many Johnnies in it."

Students scattered to four classrooms to discuss Anton Chekhov's "Gooseberries," a meditation on happiness and fulfillment.

The seminar followed the house rules at St. John's, where professors are known as tutors and students are treated as equals. It was unfamiliar territory for some of the midshipmen, who tend to major in science and math and to defer to their professors.

"There's no need to raise your hand, or anything like that," said Michael Comenetz, a St. John's tutor, at the start of the session.

The 90-minute discussion revealed as much about the students as about the text.

St. John's students offered careful, scholarly observations, drawing on references to classic literature and art, sounding very much like young professors.

One female Johnnie offered, "Animals feel the wax and wane of contentment, just like humans do."

Midshipmen spoke more plainly, summarizing the text in simpler terms.

"I was thinking, how do we know happiness is happiness?" said one female midshipman. "Because when you have a smile on your face, you know that's happiness. But that feeling doesn't last."

A midshipman joked that the reading struck him as the exact opposite of the film "Avatar": well-written, but boring.

And there were moments of genuine connection, as when a male Johnnie asked a female Mid about her cap.

"We saw four of you going to Sofi's Crepes," he said. "They all took their hats off the exact same way at the exact same time."

She smiled and replied, "There's only so many ways you can take your hat off."

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