On Service

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Is something going wrong at America’s military academies? A New York Times op-ed by Bruce Fleming, English professor at Annapolis, indicates that he thinks something is wrong. According to Fleming’s piece:

The [service academies] are set on doing things their own way, yet I know of nobody in the Navy or other services who would argue that graduates of Annapolis or West Point are, as a group, better than those who become officers through other programs. A student can go to a civilian school like Vanderbilt, major in art history (which we don’t offer), have the usual college social experience and nightlife (which we forbid), be commissioned through R.O.T.C. — and apparently be just as good an officer as a Naval Academy product.

Instead of better officers, the academies produce burned-out midshipmen and cadets. They come to us thinking they’ve entered a military Camelot, and find a maze of petty rules with no visible future application. We’re a military Disneyland, beloved by tourists but disillusioning to the young people who came hoping to make a difference.

Duly noted, but it’s not entirely clear that this is evidence that the service academies have “lost their way,” in Fleming’s words, so much as it just means Fleming doesn’t really fit in there. He refers to these schools as “holdovers from the 19th century” (the Merchant Marine Academy and the Air Force Academy actually date from the 20th century, but whatever) but the academies were actually archaic and strange even in the 19th century.

A far better point Fleming makes is that these schools seemed mostly to exist to train military officers but now, with the proliferation of ROTC programs across normal colleges, military schools are unnecessary. America can train military officers across the country. The academies “need to be fixed or abolished,” according to the article.

The argument doesn’t seem entirely convincing. Clearly, all is not perfect at the academies and the schools are remarkably slow to adopt new ideas. But a “net loss to taxpayers who finance them”? The jury is still out on that. One of the most impressive things about the schools is that, as entirely free institutions, they at least serve as a tangible example that higher education is a public good. These schools exist for the good of the nation, not just for the benefit of individual students. That idea might be a holdover from the 19th century, but it’s a damn good one. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer