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Opinion: Navy Needs Intellectual Diversity

Former Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (MCPON) Terry Scott addresses new sailors in 2006. US Navy Photo

Former Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (MCPON) Terry Scott addresses new sailors in 2006. US Navy Photo

This past May, the George Washington University Naval ROTC class of 2013 took the oath of commissioning in front of the historic Marine Corps Memorial.

It was a humid day in Arlington, Va., as the midmorning sun rose over the Iwo Jima statue, reflecting off the graduates’ brass on their new choker whites. Hundreds of proud parents and friends were in the audience, taking photographs and cheering when their ensign or second lieutenant received their commission.

As I departed the memorial that day, I couldn’t help but wonder if the 2013 graduates would be the last diverse class to enter the fleet.

To me, diversity is more than gender, race, religion and sexual orientation; it also includes the intellectual background each officer brings to the force. Starting in 2014, however, the vast majority of all NROTC graduates will be STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) majors with minimal studies in humanities. Our Navy is about to go through unprecedented compartmentalization, but not many officers seem to realize it.

The tier system was developed in 2009 as a result of fewer NROTC and Naval Academy graduates entering the nuclear-reactor community. Guidance in the Regulations for Officer Development and the Navy’s Academic Major Selection Policy directs a minimum of 65 percent of NROTC Navy Option Scholarship midshipmen complete a technical degree program before receiving their commission.

A technical degree refers to Tier 1 and Tier 2 majors, which are science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors. All other academic majors constitute a nontechnical academic major, or Tier 3.

As a result of the new academic tier policy, Naval Service Training Command offers scholarships first to Tier 1, then Tier 2, and lastly to Tier 3 majors.

A high school senior’s best chance of obtaining a Navy scholarship is to apply for a Tier 1 and 2 academic majors, since Chief of Naval Operations guidance states that not less than 85 percent of incoming scholarship offers will come from this restricted pool. In fact, an algorithm decides the fate of hopeful midshipmen, weighed in large part to their proposed major selection annotated in their respective application.

George Washington University, like many other small private universities, boasts an exemplary course of instruction in the arts and international affairs. Most applicants decide on GW because it offers a renowned education in what would be considered a Tier 3 field. U.S. News and World Report ranked GW as No. 94 in “Best Engineering Schools” as opposed to No. 16 for “American Politics.”

It would seem logical as an NROTC instructor to encourage GW students to pursue studies in a Tier 3 curriculum, rather than try to enforce a “one-size-fits-all” requirement.

The Navy Option curriculum today consists of eight core naval science classes, with studies in naval history, engineering, weapons systems, and navigation. Midshipmen take two ethics classes, one their sophomore year and a capstone with their respective commanding officer. Additionally, scholarship students must complete two semesters of calculus-based physics, two semesters of calculus, two semesters of English, one cultural awareness class, and a U.S. military or diplomatic history course.

There are no requirements for meteorology, oceanography, chemistry, computer science, firefighting, human resources management, marlinspike seamanship, logistics, naval architecture, safety of life at sea or self-defense — classes that would seem consistent with creating a well-rounded officer.

Few metrics are considered when determining who gets an interview in the nuclear-reactor community. Most midshipmen certainly have strong grade-point averages, but the principal criterion was how they performed in calculus and physics, not their major.

This begs the question: Does the tier system produce better submariners or more proficient naval officers? If less than 35 percent of our Unrestricted Line Officers possess the unique quality of comprehensive thinking through critical reading and reflection, what will the force look like in 20 years?

These are questions to consider when discerning the benefits and disadvantages of STEM graduates. We should not forget the value of future officers developing a keen interest of foreign affairs, history or language.

Following his publication of “The Influence of Sea Power upon History” in 1890, Alfred Thayer Mahan established himself as one of the leading authorities on naval warfare. His experiences at sea, combined with his reflections of history and literature, proved to be an indispensable component to our future strategy at sea.

Many naval officers of the time, including Winfield Scott Schley and George Dewey, admired the book and praised its importance. More orthodox officers, however, condemned Mahan and labeled him an eccentric “pen and ink” sailor. Francis M. Ramsay, Mahan’s nemesis from the Naval Academy and at the time, chief of the Bureau of Navigation, stated: “It is not the business of a naval officer to write books.” Considering the direction we are headed, perhaps Adm. Ramsay was right.

A version of this piece originally appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune in cooperation with the U.S. Naval Institute.

  • Marc Apter

    Are the same restrictions being placed on USNA applicants?

  • Anon

    I hope USNA will still contribute officers who’ve majored in the humanities to the pool of our Navy’s future leadership.

    I certainly hope that newly-minted officers joining the Fleet will follow Mahan’s example and, as time progresses, use the reflections on their experience and humanities to humanize the Fleet.

    And then we have scholars such as Admiral Stockdale and General Mattis – certainly worthy examples to follow, regarding expanding one’s mind and intellectual capacity.

    I expect such communities as CHC, FAO, PAO, MSC and maybe even DC and MC (if they have strong undergrad experiences of the arts, in addition to the sciences) may save the Navy from becoming a technocracy.

    Perhaps after the JOs get a few years under their belts they can avail themselves of the wonderful opportunities for graduate study in such areas as international relations, history, economics, and the like. Which reminds me: one of the greatest learning experiences I’ve had in my entire life (including five years of graduate study) was S&P at the Naval War College. Now THAT is one class that should have its lectures put online, syllabi and readings distributed, and made mandatory for every officer in the Fleet!

  • WolfNippleChips

    How will the Navy protect our sea lanes if we lose our officer’s with Gender Studies degrees? Who will staff DEOMI ?

  • Bill

    This again. Look, it’s about the amount of capability we get in the URL community for the given dollar we spend. Nobody ever switched majors to Mechanical Engineering because they couldn’t handle the rigors of Political Science. Furthermore, humanities majors do not have a monopoly on writing ability or creative thought. They DO have a monopoly on being easy.

    USNA will maintain a healthy humanities program because it has quotas to meet and football games to win. Still, every one of those midshipmen will take classes in basic steam mechanics and electrical engineering, which isn’t necessarily the case for the ROTC programs.

    • Bob

      I agree that the technical education of new officers could use improvement. This includes USNA products, despite the fact they nominally receive technical education tailored to Navy programs. However, I also agree with the author’s recommendation about making a more intelligent process to selecting educational backgrounds. I absolutely would expect that we would encourage mids at a top ranked school for the humanities to pursue that course. The same way I would expect advisors at MIT, Cornell, Georgia Tech, and other top engineering schools to push their mids into engineering. We can be smarter about this if we try.

  • NavySubNuke

    I’d be interested to find out what the authors major in college was and if it provided him any benefit in the fleet. I’m sure there are some places where a creative writing degree means something but the Navy isn’t one of them. What exactly does an English degree prepare future officers for? If you want to be a naval officer you should at least try to earn a real degree. We should save the humanities majors for those who aren’t smart or disciplined enough to actually earn a degree that is worth something – don’t let people choose that first.

    • silencedogoodreturns

      very close minded. When you are in a foreign port and some colorful natives are approaching your ship, your knowledge of the quadratic equation is not going to save you. Knowing a bit of international relations, history, language and culture just may.

      • NavySubNuke

        So an English or history major will have more knowledge of the language and culture of every possible foreign port your ship might pull into? Have you seen what is taught in most of these majors? Please explain to me how a degree in English is going to “save me”.
        Also please explain what exactly it is going to “save me” from.
        Lastly, it is much easier to teach technically educated people culture/history than it is to teach humanities education people technical things. Want proof of that? Just ask the poli-sci majors who find themselves back at NPS getting a technical degree on shore duty.

        • silencedogoodreturns

          I’m glad you apparently agree that “technically educated people” need some history and cultural studies to be a good naval officer. I spent 25 years in the Navy as an officer. Not one day did I ever use the physics, math, chemistry that I took for years. I did use the analytical skills taught me by social sciences.

          • NavySubNuke

            Fully agree that Navy officers need history and cultural studies – that just shouldn’t be their focus. Marine officers it is different since they are boots on the ground dealing with people.
            Two questions: What was your designator? What analytical skills did you learn from the social sciences?
            I’m surprised you found your technical courses so useless. I was a computer science major myself and I found the logical mindset required to write computer programs to be especially useful on the boat. Thermodynamics and principles of ship design/engineering (core USNA courses) were also very useful.

  • silencedogoodreturns

    Aside from STEM issues at the undergraduate level, is the one of the Navy’s true interest in advanced education. While the Navy has the two premier post-grad military institutions in the Navy Postgrad School and the Naval War College, attendance at either is hardly pushed by the Navy for fast chargers. For the Army, attendance at Army War College is mandatory to make O-6; for the Navy, it is seen more as a black mark, or neutral at best. Well roundedness is given lip service, but little more.

  • Bart

    There is truly nothing new under the sun. As a retired SWO whose undergraduate degree was in Political Science, I can say that this degree provided no benefit in the fleet except for conversations on the bridge during the midwatch. What DID provide me with skills to succeed in engineering and combat systems division officer and department head tours was the techinical and engineering education I received as an enlisted Sailor in the Navy’s nuclear power program. The liberal arts bachelors degree simply opened the door to OCS…and it was a degree I could complete without going to a brick and mortar university. It did nothing to help me know that my Chief was giving me good advise or whether my LPO was B.S.-ing me.
    Frankly, leading on a ship means that you DO understand how pumps and valves and electrical equipment works. It means you are comfortable and conversant in physics and engineering concepts. Moreover, leadership lends itself far better to being learned on the job than does the technical working of a ship–because no classroom situation is going to tell you what to do when the police bring Seaman Schmuckatelly back to the quarterdeck dressed in drag and under arrest for prostitution! (True story).
    As a liberal arts major and a retired SWO–who commanded at sea–I can tell you: I want engineering and science majors and former technicians in my wardroom. They can go to grad school for a national security degree. Sorry if that hurts anyone’s feelings.

  • Braveheart

    As a very successful 1110, and an English Major I am amused by the arrogance of the tech crowd. Just like WWII when the bubble goes up, you will be replaced by Officers who can fight and think outside the box. The humanities allows creative and imaginative ways to look at problems that will come up in the coming conflict.
    But you guys keep up with your peacetime Navy narrow thinking.

    • wayne_5555

      FYI engineering also allows creative and imaginative ways to look at problems.

  • OSCM(SW) ret.

    This argument is nothing new. The pendulum is simply swinging back. When Admiral Thomas Hart commanded the academy, he altered the “too technical” curriculum, in 1932, to include the humanities as, “cultural subjects like literature, history, economics, and government would tend to develop a broader outlook on life, make for broader contacts, and hence make for leadership”. The percentage of time devoted to cultural subjects increased from 21.6 to 31.6 whiles math and science decreased 33.6 to 31.3%, and professional courses decreased from 44.8 to 37.2%. (A different Kind of Victory by James Luetze, p101)

  • Tim Cich

    Back in the mid 70’s when I applied to the NA, the majority
    of the entrance exam was math. It was explained to me that if you had the discipline
    and ability to do the math, then you could be trained to handle a wide variety
    of positions. I selected to enter the sub service as an enlisted man instead
    and saw first-hand how the need for the math was there every day. Admiral
    Rickover selected only the best to man his boats and if you hadn’t been a boats
    engineer for a tour, you would never be a CO. Now days in the PC navy it seems
    like it’s more important to have diversity than the best officers in the world.
    I’ve seen and spoken to many of these young officers today and I wouldn’t sail
    with them in harm’s way let alone into Subway. Give me a CO like Whitey Mack
    any day.

  • robwong1

    Having an engineering background (BS Chemical Engineering)
    made my initial sea tour as MPA far smoother than it was for officers with
    liberal arts degrees in the Engineering department of an LPH. There are enough topics to learn as a young
    shipboard officer. At least I had the
    advantage of being able to converse intelligently with the Chief Engineer and
    my division chiefs on the physical operations and maintenance of the
    plant. It gave the advantage of time (always
    in short supply) to branch into other areas vital to the success of a young
    officer, e.g. leadership, tactics, and war fighting.

    From my point of view and personal observation, I have found
    that it’s far easier for officers with an engineering / science / math background
    to expand their knowledge base into the humanities than for a humanities major
    to do the reverse.

    The real issue is what does the Navy truly need. If the Navy needs and wants officers with
    balanced backgrounds, then it should be made clear to engineering majors that
    they must broaden their scope beyond engineering. And, likewise for humanities majors.

    As an engineering major, much of what I have learned about
    history and human relations & conflict did not take place during my
    undergraduate education. It was by
    personal reading and dialogue after my undergraduate years.

  • guest

    It’s another case of over reaction in the media. STEM this and STEM that. Silly people: large organizations like our military can’t be run by engineers. Too many of our officers can’t read and can’t write. Hire more liberal arts majors to enrich the mix of leaders. Please don’t demean the argument by picking on silly majors, think about the great classical degrees: literature, history, philosophy. They’ve well served great leaders in the past.