A Modest Proposal

By Steve Cohen '75 / May / June 2000
October 19th, 2007

For three years during the height of the Vietnam War I was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy. Although many people thought that, as a subversive New York City Jew, I was a bit of an odd duck at the Academy, I was fairly successful there: chairman of the Plebe Professional Program, an A student in Weapons and Engineering, and a guest of the Israeli Defense Force.

Then, one evening during my junior year, I was pulled out of bed and dismissed. The charge was cutting class, but I believe the decision to kick me out was in part a response to my having been a bit of a troublemaker. Imagine my surprise, then, when two years ago I was invited to return to Annapolis for what would have been my twenty-fifth reunion. With more than a little trepidation, I decided to go. It might be fun, I thought, to reconnect with people to whom I’d once been close.

But I had a second reason for returning to the Naval Academy. During the same week that my invitation had arrived, I’d received a phone call from a retired senior naval officer who, as an Annapolis instructor, had kept me relatively sane during my three years there. He was calling to ask for my help. His son John had just finished his plebe (freshman) year at the Academy and was ready to quit. As someone with both Academy and Ivy League experience, would I talk to John?

John turned out to be smart and articulate – as well as totally fed up with the Academy. What struck me was the similarity between John’s complaints and mine from a quarter-century earlier. John’s frustration was not the normal chafing at the hundreds of regulations dictating a midshipman’s life. He was responding to what he saw as a pervasive cynicism that was undermining the Academy’s core values of duty, honor, and country. John didn’t mind the rules; he objected to their inequitable enforcement. Some officers quickly meted out demerits if one’s shoes or belt buckle were not perfectly shined, while others just looked the other way. John willingly endured several daily inspections of his person and his room; he was appalled at how upperclassmen selectively used regulations to harass underclassmen they didn’t like.

John reminded me of just how unhappy a place the Naval Academy could be. He got me wondering whether my own youthful criticism of the Academy was still valid. Had my Brown education, my career, and my family life mellowed my view? My real reason for attending my twenty-fifth reunion, then, was to look at the Academy through the kind of critical perspective I had further developed at Brown. As someone who had spent time at both schools, I was struck with the heretical idea that Brown and the Naval Academy might have something to teach each other.

In the end, I visited the Academy three times and interviewed dozens of midshipmen, faculty, alumni, and administrators. I saw immediately that much had improved since my days at Annapolis. There were now female midshipmen and many more African Americans and Latinos. But the most striking change was how much sharper and more well-rounded these midshipmen were.

In fact, students at the U.S. service academies can often hold their own with students in the Ivy League. The average math SAT score for midshipmen at the twenty-fifth percentile of the entering class, for example, is 630, which is very close to Cornell’s 640 and just a bit lower than Brown’s 650. At the seventy-fifth percentile, the midshipman score of 720 is just a bit short of the Brown student’s 740. Similarly, on the verbal SAT, the Academy’s average score of 600 is ahead of Columbia’s 590 and just behind Cornell’s 610. According to the Princeton Review guide to colleges, high school class standing is a bit higher for students entering the Ivies, but there is almost no difference between the two groups in leadership experience and extracurricular activities. Racial diversity is also similar, and the main demographic difference is in the percentage of women in the student body. Clearly, midshipmen are among the very best and brightest kids in the country today.

Of course, there are important differences between a military academy and an Ivy League school. The most obvious, perhaps, is that midshipmen willingly accept harsh restrictions on their daily lives that most Brown students would never even consider subjecting themselves to. And although the academic content at Annapolis is unambiguously rigorous – midshipmen typically take six courses per semester, as well as physical-education classes, daily sports participation, and military duties that include such things as seamanship, weapons proficiency, navigation, and close order drills – the way in which this content is taught reminds me more of a tough high school than an Ivy League university. In many ways, Annapolis offers more training than education.

And then there is the honor code, which lies at the center of service-academy culture. Midshipmen will not lie, cheat, or steal. Period. No fibbing, no unauthorized borrowing, no plagiarizing. The honor code represents the Academy’s faith in its midshipmen: they are trusted to abide by this code, and for the most part they do. Yet in other ways, the Academy sends an opposite message about trust. Midshipmen are not allowed to exercise the self-discipline about dozens of little things that civilian college students must decide daily: when to study, how to approach their work, when and how much to play.

In other words, there is a wide gap between the Academy’s stirring rhetoric about trust and discipline and the way the institution treats its midshipmen. Here’s where the service academies can learn from Brown. To reduce the cynicism among midshipmen, Annapolis should begin by treating its students more as adults, as Brown does. In fact, why not have an exchange program that would send midshipmen and cadets to Brown for a semester? And – dare I suggest this? – why not encourage Brown undergraduates to complete a semester at a service academy?

Such an exchange could help correct what I view as an ominous trend. When I arrived at Brown two and a half decades ago, my military experience, though rather limited, was a curiosity and a rarity. My stories about the Academy sustained (or were fueled by) many rounds of free drinks, and I was perceived to be the local expert on all things military. Today, among my Boston-to-Washington-to-California professional peer group, I am one of the very few people to have had any military experience at all. It’s a safe bet that the number of Brown students with friends or relatives who are military veterans is even smaller than in my peer group. Yet Ivy League graduates serve as elected leaders, trusted aides, influential professionals, and members of the business elite. At a time when the use of limited military force to pursue foreign policy – look at our involvement in the Persian Gulf, in Somalia, and in Bosnia, for example – is on the rise, the understanding by Brown graduates of both the potential and the limitations of military power is largely theoretical.

I believe that we cannot afford this disconnect between military and civilian elites. Just as future military officers would benefit from the freedom and self-reliance required by a semester at a school like Brown, so would Brown students have their perspective enlarged by a semester at Annapolis or West Point. They would not have to wear uniforms, of course, but would be expected to participate fully in the Academy’s academic, professional, and athletic life. I believe that most of these Brown students would return to College Hill with a different view of the military – of why it does certain things, and of the limitations and benefits of military culture. Some future officers might even become their close friends.

I also believe that Brown students would benefit from exposure to a service academy’s honor code. Living by it, after all, is what sets midshipmen and cadets apart. Perhaps Brown and its fellow Ivies need their own honor codes clearly articulated and unambiguously enforced. Brown could perhaps begin by emulating the Naval Academy’s "character development program," which was developed in response to a series of scandals that arose in the early 1990s. Now every midshipman must attend lectures on ethical issues delivered by a wide range of noted speakers. They must participate in monthly "Integrity Development Seminars," and take a core ethics course called Moral Reasoning for Naval Leaders. When I sat in on this course not long ago, I noted how well the articulate and knowledgeable teacher, a senior female officer, was able to bring her twenty years of practical fleet experience into the classroom. The midshipmen were engaged.

Finally, I suggest that it’s time for Brown and the other Ivy League schools that have banished ROTC from their campuses to reconsider that policy. The military, I believe, would be well served by more officers with Ivy League educations, and Brown students (and their parents) deserve the option of having their education subsidized by the military. Let’s face it: the Vietnam War has been over for twenty-five years; its legacy should not include the permanent segregation of the military from civilian leadership.

I want to be clear: my Brown experience was one of the happiest, most intellectually challenging periods of my life. I met my wife at Brown and count many alumni among my close friends. The thinking and writing skills I developed on College Hill have served me well throughout a satisfying and successful career. I hope my sons choose – and are accepted by – Brown.

But it was my Annapolis experience that reinforced the verities of honor and service. It was the Navy that introduced me to parts of American society that I would not otherwise have understood. This, too, is something I hope my sons experience. It would make their education complete.

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
May / June 2000