Lone Survivor, the new film recounting an ill-fated search and rescue attempt in Afghanistan, has a tragic connection with my school, St. John’s College in Annapolis. Lt. Cmdr. Erik S. Kristensen, the Navy SEAL who led the bold mission and who died bravely along with many others in the daring operation, received a master’s degree from our Graduate Institute in Liberal Arts.
Erik was an honors graduate of the United States Naval Academy, which is right across the street from our campus. After four years with the fleet, he returned to the Naval Academy to teach English—his undergraduate major—and it was while doing so that he attended our Graduate Institute. He was the model scholar-warrior, with a passion for learning that equaled his passion for military service. He spoke French well, delved deeply into the works of Herman Melville, and was a mainstay of discussion in all his classes here at St. John’s, whether the topic was philosophy, history, politics, science, mathematics, literature or poetry.
After his death, friends and family established a memorial lecture series in Erik’s honor, to be sponsored jointly by the Naval Academy and St. John’s College, with two purposes: first, to create closer ties between his two alma maters in Annapolis; and second, to educate the public about civilian-military relations by emphasizing the role of the liberal arts in naval and military education. Our two schools of higher learning both hold that a life dedicated to our nation’s service must also be dedicated to the nation’s grounding in the principles of freedom. We believe steadfastly that an education in the arts of freedom—which is the etymological meaning of “liberal education”—is indispensable to protect those principles from attack or atrophy.
In Annapolis, it is commonly supposed that the Naval Academy and St. John’s represent polar opposites in higher education: Academy graduates are thought to be the doers; St. John’s graduates are thought to be the thinkers. This view can only be maintained by those who don’t know the profound similarities between the two institutions.
On the one side, the Naval Academy, like St. John’s, is and always has been a liberal arts college. From its earliest existence, the Academy was dedicated to educating its students not just in the practical arts needed by naval officers, but also in the liberal arts needed by citizens. In the early days, alongside engineering and seamanship, the Academy taught all branches of mathematics, French and English grammar, composition and literature. While it is true that all Naval Academy graduates earn a Bachelor of Science degree rather than a Bachelor of Arts degree, this befits the primary aim of their training, which imparts to them the knowledge and skills to be working officers of the Navy. But students can also choose to major in English, as Lt. Cmdr. Kristensen did, or in political science, or in economics, or in history—just like students at all other liberal arts colleges.
On the other side, St. John’s has a long tradition of involvement with the military. It was home to one of the nation’s first Naval ROTC programs, which was originally established to supply officers with a broader range of experience than was in those days available at military colleges, and narrow the gap that was growing between civilian and military culture. In addition, a good number of St. John’s students have decided over the years to take up military careers after graduation. And of course, St. John’s has always welcomed members of the military as students, both in our undergraduate program and in the Graduate Institute. Today, St. John’s provides the maximum financial support possible under the Yellow Ribbon Program, a federal educational assistance program available to post-9/11 active duty veterans and their dependents. Between funding from the Veterans Administration and grants from St. John’s, all tuition and fees are covered for these students. In the current academic year, five percent of our students are enrolled under this program, and our financial commitment to this program over the last few years is among the highest in the state of Maryland, despite our small size.
So while the two institutions may be polar opposites in some ways, the poles are connected by a common dedication to the crucial role of liberal education in bringing up free men and women who understand the freedoms we cherish because they partake in them fully. While relatively few St. John’s graduates may become military officers (although an increasing number are going into national defense careers), and relatively few Naval Academy graduates may become academics (although some percentage have always entered academia), all our graduates are educated for freedom—that is, they all have a liberal education. Our nation relies on such liberally educated men and women to protect the freedoms that heroes like Erik Kristensen fought and died to defend.
This essay originally appeared at Huffington Post College and is republished here with permission of the author.
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The featured image is a still of Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch, and Taylor Kitsch in Lone Survivor (2013), courtesy of IMDb.