Towards the end of my Plebe year, when I was wondering what Academic major to select, the Academy chose it for me. They crammed the entire Class of 2007 into a remote corner of Alumni Hall and told us that at least 70 percent of us SHOULD, MUST, HAVE to major in a technical degree, otherwise, they would force the required number of us to do so. The Group 1 Engineering degrees and Group 2 technical sciences would count towards that quota, while the evil drain on society of the Group 3 Humanities majors would count against it. The Commandant told us, in reference to those Group 3 majors, “Don’t take the easy way out.”
Aye, aye, Captain.
And he was right. Why dedicate my entire Academic career towards a field of study that I enjoy when instead I can spend that time in nervous sweats, plugging endless notes into my calculator in the hope that I won’t get kicked out of the Naval Academy? After all, depression and time spent in the fetal position improve my chances for Service Selection night, don’t they? As a Plebe who learned that I deserved to be punished, Engineering was the sexy choice. It’s the same reason I used to enjoy a particular sort of bondage where I was tied to a chair and emotionally assaulted.
But I still was not convinced. I wanted to confer with someone who could explain the merits of a technical degree versus the Humanities. As luck would have it, my Chemistry teacher took time out from teaching the periodic table to advise us on our impending major selection. She told us that we better major in a technical degree…”Or else”, opening a latch in the floor to reveal a fire pit full of Humanities majors gnashing their teeth and reciting Shakespeare. She continued, reading from the same script of reasons that we had heard before: technical majors make better Officers, to which we nodded our heads in unison and responded, “Yes, technical majors DO make better Officers.” They just do, ok? I don’t have the vocabulary to explain myself.
While the positive effects of choosing Mechanical Engineering would have to wait for graduation, the resentment it bred in me towards Group 3 Majors was immediate. I didn’t hate them so much as I hated the idealized version of their lifestyle that I took to be true: going to sleep at 2200 every night, napping at 1200 with all the “youngsters” they had, talking to their girlfriends every night, HAVING a girlfriend, talking on AIM so much it should count as a 2-credit class (do they have AIM anymore?), going out on the weekend with no hesitation, and not starting homework on Sunday until after formation. The grass was greener on the other side of the fence, and they were probably rolling it up and smoking it, too.
I took solace in the fact that the skills I learned on the graph paper were directly proportional to my skills on the battlefield: “Ok men, before we take the hill, I want you find the slope of the hill, and the corresponding tangent exponential…” ok, I don’t actually know what I’m talking about. I didn’t get very good grades. I was a Mechanical Engineering major until the start of my 2nd Class year, when I would hide in the first floor bathroom during class, singing Sinead O’Connor songs as an anxiety depressant. When I told my Academic Advisor that I wanted to switch to Ocean Engineering, he suggested that I stick with Mech-E, get C’s and D’s, and “take your diploma and run.” “That’s a lot of Sinead”, I said. So I switched.
My grades improved in Ocean Engineering, but my skill did not. I fulfilled the requirements of my Capstone senior project through a combination of caffeine and large graphs with unnecessarily long captions (“the x-axis is the horizontal plane, while the y-axis is vertical, and, coincidentally, perpendicular to the x-axis. Perpendicular means 90 degrees—“), but the buoy we created with the intention of using motion to produce electricity did not work. My Capstone professor was tempted to sell the buoy for parts, but instead uses it as a nacho cheese dispenser at his annual Super Bowl Party, which is always an “Ocean of Excitement” (his words).
This is not a criticism of the Engineering department or its Professors, who, God knows, should be given a medal for the amount of office hours they spent helping me correct my “Gross Conceptual Errors” as well as teach me what the phrase “Gross Conceptual Error” means. I lacked intellect, but I also wasn’t a good student. I spent more time writing essays whining about the administration instead of doing my homework. That’s not to say I didn’t learn anything. I became really good at using sad puppy eyes as a way of convincing my Professor to issue me a passing grade, and have used the same technique in the fleet to receive an extra pair of flight gloves.
I don’t think the administration stands to gain much by bullying Midshipmen to study one particular major; the Midshipmen don’t gain much, either. The administration should believe in all of their accredited academics and should stand behind the Midshipmen’s freedom of choice in selection. My Class had no trouble reaching the required quota, so I had the freedom to select the major I wanted, but not in an environment that supported that decision.
What I learned the most from the Naval Academy is that work ethic in the face of insurmountable enemy, like Multivariable Calculus, can help get the job done. This made me a better officer. But I didn’t necessarily have to learn that lesson as a technical major. I don’t think there is data correlating type of Academic major and success as an Officer. If there is, I won’t understand it, but will spend hours of Extra Instruction with any willing professor as he tries to pound the information into my head.