- Historic Sites
School For Sailors
A novelist and historian takes us on a tour of the Academy at Annapolis, where American history encompasses the history of the world.
April 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 3
Post-World War II buildings have abandoned Beaux-Arts for a more modern look, but their names bind them to the Academy’s past. Michelson Hall is named for Albert A. Michelson, class of 1873, the first American to win the Nobel Prize—for measuring the speed of light, a feat he first performed while a physics instructor at the Academy. The place where he conducted his famous experiment is marked by a bronze disk in the plaza outside the building. The glossy home of the engineering department is Rickover Hall, named for Adm. Hyman Rickover, the controversial father of the nuclear Navy.
The most important difference between the old and new Annapolis is invisible; it is in the curriculum. Its genesis goes back to 1931, when the board of visitors in its annual report deplored the absence of courses in economics, social sciences, biology, government, ethics, foreign languages, and literature. The superintendent tried to remedy the situation by cutting back on professional naval education and adding courses in some of these areas. But the next superintendent eliminated them, claiming that the result was endangering the strictly naval side of the course.
This sort of academic Ping-Pong continued until 1968, when the youngest superintendent in the school’s history, the forty-seven-year-old Rear Adm. James C. Calvert, decided that the school’s mission was not to train each midshipman to do every job in the fleet but to prepare each class to supply the fleet with the know-how it needed to cope with the modern world. He retained the scientific core of the curriculum but offered qualified midshipmen a chance to major in no fewer than twenty-four different subjects.
The impact on the school was almost miraculous. In spite of the antimilitary atmosphere engendered by Vietnam, applications leaped. The number of applications has grown steadily since the majors program began in 1969. Today some fifteen thousand young men and women apply for the roughly thirteen hundred places available in the plebe class. This enables the Academy to select a pretty creamy crop. No less than 81 percent of the class of 1991 ranked in the top fifth of their high school classes.
Talking to midshipmen, one quickly grasps another aspect of Annapolis’s appeal. Compared with West Point and the Air Force Academy, the Naval Academy offers a more interesting menu of career choices. One first classman majoring in computer science told me: “My father is an Air Force colonel. I’m here because in the Air Force you either fly a plane or sit at a desk. In the Navy you can go four different directions—surface warfare, submarines, air, or the Marines. A lot of guys like this variety.”
Each year about 16 percent of the first class chooses the Marines. Professor Jack Sweetman, who teaches history at the Academy, says the Corps appeals to two surprisingly different types. One is the standard gung-ho, can-do personality, who likes the implied challenge to his courage. The others are “military intellectuals,” often the brightest people in their class.
Though many midshipmen come from landlocked states beyond the smell of the sea, the Academy uses its watery environs to make sure that every one becomes a bona fide sailor. No visitor should fail to pay a visit to Santee Basin, where many of the Academy’s 219 sailing craft are docked. On almost any afternoon you will see midshipmen heading into the Chesapeake aboard everything from International 420s to forty-to sixty-foot racing sloops. The sailing team numbers 225 and is the largest varsity team at the Academy. For seven unprecedented years, 1977–83, they won the Leonard Fowle trophy, symbol of intercollegiate sailing supremacy.
Still another interesting nautical sight for the sea-wall stroller are the yard boats—sleek, powerful-looking patrol craft about the size of World War II torpedo boats, aboard which midshipmen get hands-on experience in navigation and ship handling three times a week. The six-ship flotilla operates like a destroyer squadron, with each ship under the command of a first or second classman.
Although the Beaux-Arts style has given way to a more modern look, the most important difference between the old and new Annapolis is invisible: the curriculum.
At the corner of the Severn and Chesapeake sea walls is a monument to remind the stroller that the Academy also values the achievements of more recent graduates. The Triton Light holds a glass ball containing waters from the twentytwo seas the nuclear submarine USS Triton crossed to circumnavigate the globe underwater in 1960.
The stroller whose appetite for history is not yet sated should press on to the Academy Museum, which, along with a great gathering of portraits and swords and uniforms, contains a remarkable collection of miniature warships and naval prints.