The Naval Academy is regarded as one of the top liberal arts colleges in the nation, and many attend for that very reason. But what if the Academy’s curriculum does not reflect a true liberal arts education, but a radical distortion of it—a falsehood?
The hour is here when midshipmen candidates of the Class of 2024 will decide whether to accept their prestigious appointment to the United States Naval Academy. Many devoted four years of blood, sweat, and tears to arrive at this crucial moment in their lives. It is one thing to fulfill one’s duty to serve this great nation; it is an entirely different matter to go about this path by attending the Naval Academy.
Those patriotic young men and women desiring to step into the ranks of astronaut Alan Shepard and Admiral Rickover do so for an array of reasons: an all-expenses paid tuition, a rigorous and challenging academic environment, and an overall different college experience than that of their peers at civilian institutions. After all, the Naval Academy prides itself on being “not college.” But there are a handful of individuals who choose to apply due to the fact that the Naval Academy is ranked #17 in the category of National Liberal Arts College, amongst the likes of Davidson and Haverford College according to the U.S. News and World Report.
To the individuals falling into the latter category, the truth, despite the claim stated by the mentioned report, is that a midshipman will not receive a liberal arts education at the Naval Academy. Before we press on with this accusation, let us first discuss what such an education is considered by today’s standards.
A 21st-century liberal arts education is classified as a conglomeration of courses in the humanities with no clear aim or telos other than to instill a heightened sense of critical thinking. The average student learns to question everything and anything, even truth itself. The Association of American Colleges & Universities vaguely states that a liberal education “provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest.”
An education that reflects this ambiguous mission teaches a curriculum similar in composition to that of a fruit salad: a slice of English, a scoop of historical secondary sources, a lump of situational ethics, and a colossal piling of science, engineering, and math. The aim of the administration of course is to persuade the clueless student to specialize in a technical field due to its utility in the modern world and a higher chance of material success upon graduation.
As part of the core curriculum at Annapolis, a student does not read Shakespeare, Dante, or in fact any of the literary giants of the Western Canon—forget about poetry. Aristotle is sidelined to the footnotes of a PowerPoint slide in an ethics courses. In history, one learns about various cultures and their origins, spanning from the Middle Kingdom of China to the Ottoman Empire, but not the 2,000 plus years of Western Civilization to which this Republic owes its life.
If we measure what a liberal arts education is to these standards, there is no question that the Naval Academy fulfills the mission of a liberal arts college. In fact, the core curriculum described above is exactly the education that a midshipman receives, and frankly many other students at top-tier higher educational institutions. But what if this curriculum does not reflect a true liberal arts education but a radical distortion of it—a falsehood?
A true liberal arts education is best defined by Russel Kirk in Redeeming the Times.
The primary purpose of a liberal education, then, is the cultivation of the person’s own intellect and imagination, for the person’s own sake . . . Formal schooling actually commenced as an endeavor to acquaint the rising generation with religious knowledge: with awareness of the transcendent and with moral truths. Its purpose was not to indoctrinate a young person in civics, but rather to teach what it is to be a true human being, living within a moral order. The person has primacy in liberal education.
Russell Kirk speaks against the teaching methodology practiced by modern academia seeking to fill the human mind with an overwhelming amount of purely utilitarian knowledge, which the learner naturally forgets due to its long-term worthlessness. He offers an alternative approach to liberal education, one that is not centered around a specific profession or job but the human person; an education that forms the human person in a holistic manner by taking into consideration certain timeless moral truths. Such a curriculum focuses on questions addressing the universal struggles of the human condition: why do we exist, what is ordered liberty, and, most importantly, what is it for?
We have forgotten that the liberal arts—derived from the Latin root liber, which means “free person”—was once universally understood to provide the moral and intellectual framework required to live in a free, self-governing society. This foundation promotes the cultivation of virtue or moral excellence through the exposure to the good, true, and beautiful. Only the individual freed from the enslavement of sin and ignorance is able to properly govern himself, a prerequisite condition to the survival of a republican form of government.
It is clearly obvious that a liberal arts education rooted in the classical tradition would only benefit an officer corps destined to lead men, often of lesser educational background, from the shadows of the caves where they were once held captive. An education aimed at cultivating virtue and an ordered sense of liberty is the ideal antidote for the moral scandals that persist in today’s Navy.
Thus, if the Naval Academy does not pass on the knowledge and wisdom concerning the good, true, and beautiful, to which institution should an aspiring naval officer turn?
A high school senior desiring a true liberal education should look into alternative colleges, though their prestige and class camaraderie pale in comparison to the Academy’s. Hillsdale College, Thomas Aquinas College, and the Great Books Program at St. John’s College in Annapolis are a few recommended options. To note, a student at St. John’s College will read 200 great books during their four-year tenure. With such a curriculum, one will indefinitely cultivate a life-long passion for self-learning, a trait identified recently in the SecNav’s Education for Seapower report as widely amiss in today’s Naval Officer Corps.
For those midshipmen who are studying at the Naval Academy and thirst for a greater expanse of knowledge and intellect in this realm, I suggest connecting with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. In fact, an ISI chapter on the yard currently exists, so it is as simple as reaching out to the chapter leaders to get involved. The Liberty Fund is also a great resource, as they publish a remarkable array of texts in the subjects of political philosophy, economics, and Western culture.
There is no question that graduating from the Naval Academy brings job security, material prosperity, and a university education that ranks among the highest in the nation if not the world. The fleet training opportunities at the Academy clearly eclipse those received by our counterparts, who commissioned through NROTC and OCS. But midshipmen candidates and their parents must recognize that these qualities alone will not form the naval officer that this exceptional Republic deserves and most honestly needs for its survival.
Men and women of character, deeply educated in the Western Tradition and its moral underpinnings, is the higher priority. John Adams recognized this truth when he boldly stated that our “Constitution is built for a moral and religious people.”
A liberal arts education rooted in the classical tradition and a healthy dose of the modern application of the sciences is, I believe, the liberal education that John Paul Jones envisioned in his Qualifications of a Naval Officer.
It is by no means enough that an officer of the Navy should be a capable mariner. He must be that, of course, but also a great deal more. He should be as well a gentleman of liberal education, refined manners, punctilious courtesy, and the nicest sense of personal honor.
So before the midshipman candidates decide to accept their appointments, I ask that they take into account their moral and intellectual formation which will be the preeminent factor in shaping what kind of Naval Officer they will become.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.