There are a few things that I hold as self-evident. This simple progression, is one of them;

– The most effective things and the most important things are simple to describe and protect.
– When effective and important things are inconvenient to some, barriers to their needs – they complicate the effective and important.
– When effective and important things are made more complicated, they become flaccid and ill-defined.
– Flaccid and ill-defined things can be easily shaped and avoided.
– Things easily shaped and avoided are useful for everything and nothing.
– Things that can be used for everything and nothing are ineffective and unimportant.

This weekend at The Captial, Ensign Stephen E. Shaw has an important article that requires your attention titled, Naval Academy Honor Concept strays from roots.

You don’t have to be a Annapolis Alumni to be concerned with Annapolis – I’m not. The fact remains that this is the critical core of our future leadership – its seed corn. What is learned there is brought to the Fleet. What is damaged there has to be repaired in the Fleet. Honor – or one’s respect of it – is the wellspring from which all else flows. If you don’t get that right, it is hard to make the rest work from being a DivO to running a Program Office.

You have to read it all – seriously – because the strength of the article is how ENS Shaw describes how a simple system has been perverted in such a way that it is almost impossible to talk about it. So complicated, that good people can’t even argue about it because no one really understands it. You cannot enforce something you can’t explain, understand, or follow.

The French have a great word for someone who works in and is stuck in a bureaucratic mindset – fonctionnaire – that about describes the only personality type that could support the system at Annapolis as it exists today.

Here is the pull-quote,

The current widespread problem of cynicism at the Academy is an indication of a failure to do this. I often wondered, What legitimate reason does the Naval Academy midshipman have to be cynical? The quality of education is high and is provided at no cost to the midshipman. The opportunities available to each member of the Brigade far surpass those available to any comparable undergraduate student in the country, including cadets at West Point and the Air Force Academy who have fewer options for service assignments.

It is difficult to believe, as it is oftentimes claimed, that trivialities such as limited weekend liberty or regulated exercise uniforms are the main causes of cynicism. The average midshipman is not, and has never been, adverse to hard or challenging work. In fact, this is what typically attracts him or her to the Academy in the first place. Something is driving midshipmen to acquire cynical attitudes towards the Naval Academy.

In 2005, the committee structure was completely abandoned. The current “honor staff” is a subcomponent of the regular Brigade organization, and honor staff members are selected by a panel of senior officers at the Naval Academy. 27 It must be noted that few, if any, midshipmen have had a “say” in the changes that have been made to the system over the years— a system which was originally created by midshipmen and enacted by a nearly unanimous Brigade-wide vote.

Nonetheless, since the system was established in 1951, each new class of midshipmen has been taught that the Naval Academy has a non-codified, or concept-based, standard of honor despite the system’s actual structure. There is still regular discussion and proclamation that the Brigade “owns” the Honor Concept (sometimes meaning both the statement and the system, depending on whom you talk to), despite the fact that: 1) the Brigade plays no role whatsoever in the selection of honor staff members, and 2) the selected staff members report directly to the Honor Officer, who is a member of the Department of Character Development and Training Division under the Commandant. This is a far cry indeed from the original structure, which on occasion saw the First Class Committee Chairman, who was the midshipman responsible for overseeing the system, report directly to the Superintendent. 28

While the system has undergone drastic changes throughout the past 60 years, the description and discussion of it have remained basically unchanged. Due to the inconsistency between how the system was understood and how it actually operated, midshipmen, alumni, faculty members, and staff officers have little confidence in the effectiveness of the current program.

The system is claimed to be non-codified, yet definitions remain; it is claimed to not be based on fear, yet its only function is to punish (although I am unaware of any midshipmen who were separated solely due to an honor offense in the last four years); it is claimed to be owned and operated by the Brigade, yet the Brigade has no “say” in the selection of staff members, nor do those staff members have any real authority over the system, other than the execution of documented procedures and orders from the staff officers assigned over them.

As long as the inconsistencies described above are allowed to exist, it remains practically impossible to address any issues afflicting the honor system. Since the same terminology (concept, ownership, etc.) has been used for the past six decades, officers, midshipmen, and alumni who attempt to discuss these issues are not aware that they very well may be talking about different things. For example, it took me nearly four years to completely piece together the evolution of the honor system from its creation in 1951 to what exists today. The confusing language and recycled terminology has made work on this program convoluted and tedious at best. The current honor system at the Naval Academy is inconsistent, ineffective, contradictory, misunderstood, and confusing, and has little support from the Naval Academy community as a whole.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again. There is nothing wrong with the MIDN at Annapolis. This generation of men and women are just fine, thank you very much. The problem is with the older generations above them.

These MIDN – the ones you want – will have no problems meeting a superior standard, all you have to do is ask. All leadership has to do is to have the courage to meet the standard in action that they describe in words.

Remember, what is learned at the Academy is brought to the Fleet – the good and the bad. Even we knuckle-dragg’n NROTC types know that……

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  • Herbal

    Ensign Shaw’s recommendations in the final section of his paper are outstanding.

  • YNSN

    The good Ensign has identified the stultifying function in the USNA. Excellent analysis on his part. He has also reported it to those in power to remove this function. Now, all we need is leadership to act on this report.

    With an analytical mind such as his, I’d gladly follow him into harm’s way.

  • Jack Osborne

    A function of a society is never improved by the creation of organizations to regulate the society.
    Honor is never improved by regulations, but only by discipline by the members of the society!
    If you allow entry into the society of people incapable of the concept of honor, they must be removed from the society when ever possible.
    But, of course, all of the above must be sacrificed for political correctness!


  • As a graduate of the USCGA Class of 1994, I’m fascinated by this. I’ll be linking to this from our class site and sending out a heads-up to our mailing list. It should be interesting to see how USNA compares to USCGA.

  • Cap’n Bill

    Times and Circumstances Change. Good People change their behavior under the stress of circumstances. I recall that my USNA Class President Bill Lawrence called us all together and laid down the law as had been arranged with the Supt VADM harry Hill. We young men of “1951” held the Supt in great respect and Bill had earned our trust. We were used to obeying and must have been ready for the salubrious changes in our ethical deportment. Implementation went well. But it seems that it didn’t take long for erosion to begin. Not all Progress is Good. Change is inevitable.

  • Paul

    As a Norwich graduate that functioned under an honor code I find this fascinating as well. The differences between the service academies and the private colleges are widespread, but I thought the concept of honor was something that held us all together as either professional military officers or as members of society. It distresses me that the concept of honor is considered with such cynicism, with good reason, at USNA. I’m interested to see what others have to say, especially any brethren on this forum from either West Point, VMI or the Citadel.

  • An honor “code” can be made to work. The idea that it is fear based is absurd. The cadets at The I own the code. Take great pride in the code and live the code. It’s very simple.

    “I will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do.”

    Exams were almost always unmonitored. You were able to schedule exams. There was no sharing of information with classmates that took the same exam days earlier. You were frequently (at least in my case) required to turn yourself in for violations of regulations (non honor court).

    “These MIDN – the ones you want – will have no problems meeting a superior standard, all you have to do is ask. All leadership has to do is to have the courage to meet the standard in action that they describe in words.”

    These are the leaders our soldiers and sailors deserve.

    Disclosure. I did not graduate. I wasn’t a good student. But never was I tempted to cheat. I haven’t spoken to a classmate in years, but wouldn’t hesitate to trust any of them in any situation.