Mediocrity’s Sojourn at the Service Academies

Bruce Fleming has been an outspoken critic of the U.S. Naval Academy, his employer for the past 23 years. His latest flaming arrow – Navy has descended into unforgivable mediocrity.

While his hefty New York Times manifesto makes some accurate observations, his arguments are askew. The academies achieved mediocrity quite some time ago – and the services have as well.

Dr. Fleming, an English professor, received some notoriety for his last cause célèbre: opposition to alternate (reduced) standards for some racial minority applicants and midshipman.

Mediocrity and relevance have long plagued the service academies. It was true in the early 1980s. One’s experience was a four-year test in academic and social survival. The wunderkind of that period triumphed in the face of tremendous gender and racial upheaval. Remarkable? Probably not. What makes a remarkable academy collective? Do you know it when you meet it? Some sought to avoid clichéd mediocrity. Regardless, those were pretty mediocre Cold War times.

With this latest shot line across the bow, Fleming argues the Reserve Officer Training Corps produces at least an equal product to the service academies. He maintains the academy churns out burn-outs. Kids come to the banks of the Severn seeking some military Camelot and quickly find a stifling maze of petty rules that lead nowhere. Fleming feels for the prior-enlisted students whom, he alleges, have the most difficult time with such a broken system. Yeah, prior enlisteds have had difficulty over the years. Disdain for their classmates has been their primary contribution.

If the service academy system is in fact a lukewarm tub of mediocrity, then luminaries like Bruce and the other profs carry a large part of the responsibility.

Mediocrity in conquered in the classroom, not Bancroft Hall. Profs have the power to transcend all the pettiness that has existed at the service academies since their founding.

Profs inspire and lift midshipmen above mediocrity. Guys like Fleming’s English Department colleague, Charlie Nolan. How about Richard Abels who now heads the History Department? He is one guy who gets giddy talking about a phalanx. Craig Symonds, another professor of history, now retired, was of another world – a place his students wanted to get to. My fave is John Huston, a one-man inspiration machine while at Navy.

Professor Huston was a World War II bomber pilot. He started teaching history at  Annapolis in 1956. He maintained his military creds and eventually headed Air Force history as a major general – all before I met him. He was probably a bigger critic of the Naval Academy than Bruce Fleming, but stood as this beacon for mids. He also was intimate with the workings of this broken system. Somehow we all rose above it, thanks to guys like him.

Bruce, we get your point. So other than a New York Times diatribe, what are you going to do about it?

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