Read for your Life
Our majors often tell us that their English courses have encouraged them to become both more thoughtful and more open-minded. These observations highlight the potential that an intensive and disciplined study of literature has to make us more alive and more human. Franz Kafka said, "A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us." And Emily Dickinson, taking the naval metaphor in a different direction, wrote, "There is no Frigate like a Book/ To take us Lands away." Literature continually takes us out of ourselves and, paradoxically, brings us closer to ourselves. Such lessons are ideally suited for future leaders.
Trust in the Future
Can English majors serve in any area of the fleet? Do they perform well as junior officers? The answer to both questions is a resounding YES. Academy English grads have become pilots, naval flight officers, submariners, SEALs, surface warfare officers, and Marines. They are not only technically capable, but also skilled writers and creative, critical thinkers – qualities that are called into use every day of their professional lives. English graduates who leave the Navy have gone on to achieve success in business, law, education, government, and even medicine.
Would you rather read Jonathan Swift's satire or data about the velocity of wind over an airfoil?
As the Executive Officer for an F/A-18 squadron, I needed to demonstrate tactical prowess in the aircraft AND verbal prowess in the office. Being a good officer involves more than technical and tactical proficiency – it involves leadership, which means it involves communicating in effective and inspirational ways every day.
From Homer to John Keats, Jane Austen to Tim O'Brien, the great authors teach us that our lives are measured, and so must be spent well. Literature plays an inestimable role in bettering life, whether through exposing us to alien perspectives, to the moral and spiritual power of beauty, or to complexities of thought that can only be expressed through complexities of language. Moreover, writing about literature offers an opportunity to practice and develop one’s writing skills more fully than writing about any other subject, since one must inevitably confront the supremely sophisticated use of language in literature with a sophistication of one's own.
Surprisingly, and perhaps ironically, an English major also prepares you to understand the technical complexity of the systems we fight with. When I was selected to be the NATOPS officer of an SH-60B helicopter squadron, I was given the responsibility for educating the entire squadron about every one of many mechanical, electrical, hydraulic, avionics, and weapons systems on the helicopter, as well as maintaining high standards of pilot proficiency. The rigorous thinking required of me as an English major allowed me to comprehend these systems by reading and dissecting the prose descriptions of each system in our 1,000+ page NATOPS Flight Manuals. Meanwhile, the rhetorical practice I received as an English major helped me communicate the intricacies of these complex systems to all of the other pilots and aircrewmen. Finally, the strong attention my writing received while I was an English major helped me clearly and fairly express how well each pilot adhered to flight regulations and procedures in the dozens of reports I wrote following NATOPS flight check rides, and how well my sailors performed on their periodic evaluations. I credit much of my success in the Fleet to the foundation I laid for myself as an English major.
I would definitely recommend the English major. I still feel entirely prepared for the technical aspects of my future naval career because of all the required math and science courses. And what I consider to be the most valuable skills to leaders in any field – those of communication, critical thinking, and open-mindedness – are taught best by the English major. Plus I always just think that 2nd deck Sampson is the cheeriest place on the Yard.
In the introduction to Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Richard Rorty writes that improvements in our world will be 'achieved not by inquiry but by imagination, by the imaginative ability to see strange people as fellow sufferers,' and he goes on to claim that this is a task not for philosophers or scientists but for novelists and poets. I think of this claim almost every time I teach, for this is what we do as teachers of literature. We help our students enlarge their capacity for empathy. We help them to see how other people think and act – and, along the way, to learn how their own minds work.
As an operational SEAL outside the office environment, I found my English major particularly useful. During both of my overseas deployments, I traveled to the front lines of the battlefield and infiltrated denied enemy territory. I can say without hesitation that I did quote Shakespeare and other literary figures to motivate my men in the midst of imminent danger. Who better than Shakespeare when exploring what it means to grow up, to develop as a leader, or to transcend ranks and become brothers in combat arms? What better medium than literature to exploit the vast depths of human experience and lessons learned over thousands of years?
I believe in the power of language, that words – both spoken and written – produce material consequences when we release them into the world. Through my teaching and directing, I strive to foster within my students an awareness of and responsibility for the power of their own language. As a professor of English at USNA, I hope to develop future officers who will listen sensitively to the words of others and who will respond clearly, confidently, and thoughtfully.
Study of great works of literature provides thousands of years of perspective at the reader's fingertips. Although the 21st century hardly resembles the world of the ancient Greeks or the early Americans, one thing remains the same – people. Even today themes such as love, fear, duty, and guilt ring just as true in human minds as they did two thousand years ago. By examining relationships and situations in works such as the Aeneid or the Canterbury Tales we can discover truths about ourselves and humanity that are still relevant to today's world.