Tags: naval academy, Training & Education
The U.S. Service Academies are national treasures because they exist exclusively to prepare young men and women to lead our country’s heroes. The Naval Academy holds a distinct place in our national character because America is a maritime nation with a sea-going identity that relies on a strong navy to defend her shores, explore the unknown, protect commerce, facilitate diplomacy, and wage war.
U.S. naval officers are genuinely aware of the connection between their place in this tradition and the significance of sea power – past, present and future. The U.S. Naval Academy, then, has a distinct responsibility to champion, promote and celebrate its position as a national fountainhead of U.S. naval history and an obligation to aggressively convey the bearing our naval history has on our nation’s future to tomorrow’s leaders.
From everything I’ve seen and heard, USNA’s new Superintendant, Vice Admiral Michael Miller, supports this point of view. He is a tested combat-leader, a visionary, a thinker, and a true officer and gentlemen. He is also an Annapolis alum who has spoken of his deep interest in history and naval history in particular – which is a bitter irony considering we are about to witness its death.
From their very first day on the Severn, midshipmen have a shared end-state: to receive a commission and lead Sailors and Marines. In this way, they immediately distinguish themselves from their civilian counterparts at universities and colleges across the country. Midshipmen maintain an incredible bond with each other based on an individual commitment to a collective excellence predicated on unselfishness: the understanding that service before self is life’s most honorable calling. That and the reality that you can’t survive a military academy alone.
What follows over the next four years is a moral, mental and physical evolution that is meant to test individual midshipmen’s devotion to service, steer them towards an occupational specialty that complements their personality and talents and best prepares their hearts for what will be the most challenging and rewarding life’s work imaginable … leadership in combat and at sea.
So perhaps it’s best said that the most critical function of our service academies is to imbue in the cadet or midshipman the ultimate humility: that none of their undergraduate experience is about them.
It’s up to the individual midshipman to embrace this – that they aren’t working so hard at the Naval Academy for themselves but rather for the opportunity to one day work so much harder for someone else – and it’s up to the administration to give the mids tools along the way to make their hard work pay-off.
Leadership training is one such tool. Moral and physical development are others. A rigorous curriculum of math, science and engineering are others still. But the tools learned in the study of history, and HH104 in particular – USNA’s required course in American Naval History – are some of the most important of them all.
As a matter of desired devices, history is entirely commensurate with the challenges of leading men and women in combat or at sea. A sound understanding of history provides the officer a lens to more clearly understand the mistakes and successes of the past, a framework to process the problems at hand, and a workable socio-calculus that helps approach an understanding of what tomorrow may hold.
Moreover, the study of history conveys an understanding of the human design, an appreciation for irony, a keen sense of collective memory, and a moral context to explain the reason they are all fighting in the first place. These are among the most valuable tools a decision maker, mentor, and leader can possess because these are the tools our Sailors and Marines need most from their officers.
All of this is invaluable intellectual training and plebes at USNA are immediately exposed to it in HH104. Just as significant is the specific history that HH104 relates: the complex and storied past of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps. In imparting this history, HH104 becomes an essential vehicle of acculturation. It imbues these novice midshipmen with a deeper and clearer comprehension of the experiences and sacrifices of those who have preceded them in America’s Naval Service. The course serves as an essential repository of collective memory and thus an integral means to integrate plebes into the culture of the Academy and the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps. In other words, the course – like other key components of plebe year – helps transform a jumble of motivated yet unformed individuals into an amalgam of inspired and unified officers-to-be.
Which is why it was so troubling to hear that HH104, American Naval History, is being moved from the 4th Class, plebe curriculum to the 1st Class (i.e., senior year) curriculum at USNA.
Here’s what happened…
At some point during last academic year (2009-2010) the Department of the Navy tasked the previous Superintendant, Vice Admiral Fowler, to add a cyber warfare class to the core curriculum. No public announcement was made. Apparently, last spring a small working group, operating in the shadows, was established to come up with a plan to create introductory and upper-level cyber warfare courses. The USNA community knew nothing about the working group’s tasking and work and learned of this development only last fall. The dilemma was how to add these courses without overloading an already full plate.
Surprisingly, the working group recommended moving American Naval History to 1st Class year. Apparently, they didn’t care that this decision will leave new midshipmen adrift and ignorant of the history of their profession, and their nation, for three years. Again, no official announcement was made.
The fact that HH104 was dead only came to light by happenstance. In October, the History Department underwent a routine, external review. The review report was distributed to the Department faculty in late October and HH104’s removal from 4th Class year, buried in the report, was presented as a certainty.
As word trickled out, upset ensued. First, the military and civilian faculty who teach HH104 expressed their unanimous opposition to moving HH104. Then, a number of History faculty who do not teach HH104 registered their dismay that such a major curriculum change would occur without any serious consideration and vote by the Faculty. The general reaction of midshipmen who have heard of the HH104 shift is consternation. Most recently, the shift of HH104 has prompted vigorous and agitated discussion within the Faculty Senate.
What upsets everyone as much as moving HH104 is the way in which it was done. The military and civilian faculty members who teach American Naval History were never consulted as to the effect this shift would have on the professional and academic education of midshipmen, nor was the larger History faculty consulted as a group. This change occurred in the shadows, violated the established policies regarding curricular review, and appeared as a fait accompli.
More troubling than the manner in which the decision to erase HH104 from the plebe curriculum was reached are the future, harmful effects this will have on the Naval Academy and on the Naval Service:
1.) Academic harm. Moving HH104 denies midshipmen an early exposure to the analytical tools History provides which would help them through the rest of their time at the Naval Academy. In HH104 midshipmen not only learn names and dates (which is important), they learn how to conduct research, write a research paper, think analytically, learn historical causation and the ultimate and proximate reasons why things happened the way they did, construct and carry an argument, and approach complex problems with the necessary perspective. And, perhaps most significantly, they learn about the relationship between the birth and evolution of the navy they have just joined and the nation they have just promised to support and defend.
2.) Educational harm. History is the foundation for an understanding of every social science. Teaching the required class in American Government (FP130), currently a plebe-year course, before teaching the context in which America became a government is, at best, sloppy and at worst negligent. Mids take Calc-I, Calc-II, Calc-III and differential equations before they go on to use those methods in tackling a complex electrical engineering problem. How can they possibly be asked to write about Federalism in FP130 without understanding the historical context in which Federalism occurred? From an educational angle, the course that should be taught later in the USNA curriculum is FP130.
3.) Professional harm. Who will give them – early – the basis of historical and cultural thinking called for by the CNO and Commandant of the Marine Corps in A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power? This is where West Point gets it right. The U.S Military Academy places an institutional importance on the study of history and its relevance to a successful, professional military officer and the success of its future operations in defense of this Nation.
4.) Moral harm. The aggregate effect of the shift of HH104 affects the Sailors and Marines the midshipmen will one day lead. The Fleet is weaker with a junior officer (of any major) who hasn’t been applying the analytical tools learned in HH104 over the course of four years of study. Our Sailors and Marines will have less effective leaders.
This all concerns me deeply.
Cyber warfare is important and in addressing it in its curriculum, the Naval Academy is being flexible and realistic in preparing midshipmen for the multi-faceted nature of 21st-century conflict. But of the two plebe-year courses that could move, why wasn’t FP130 chosen? It makes good pedagogical sense to have midshipmen learn about American government after taking their three core history courses which give them a sense of American and world history and the historical context in which the U.S. Constitution was framed.
One of the institutional strengths of the U.S. Naval Academy is its ability to adapt and prepare officers of the Naval Service for the next fight. But steeped in this tradition has always been a reliance on history. HH104, as the introductory course in historical thinking and the most effective vehicle to convey the collective memory of the U.S. Naval Service, is the bedrock of professional development at the Naval Academy.
Consider this sobering image: the Brigade of Midshipmen in Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in which about 3,000 of the 4,000 midshipmen have no knowledge of, or appreciation for, the names of battles enshrined on the walls there, nor any sense of the sacrifice those letters represent. Because 3,000 of these midshipmen never had HH104 as plebes, they will be tragically unaware of the significance of places such as Tarawa, Okinawa, Khe Sanh, and even Midway. We will now have a 75 per cent “ignorant” Brigade at every football game.
HH104 must continue to be offered to 4th Class midshipmen for one reason alone: none of this is about them. It is about preparing them to be the best officers for their Sailors and Marines – officers who are analytical, creative, and flexible and also soundly grounded in the heritage and history of the Naval Service.