Johnnie-Mid Seminar breaks social impasse in Annapolis

By Daniel de Vise
Sunday, April 11, 2010

The two schools sit blocks apart in downtown Annapolis. Yet students from the Naval Academy and St. John's College seldom mix.

"Johnnies" lead an insular life, devouring great books. Midshipmen follow a regimented schedule that affords few liberties and little free time. Preconceptions of Mids as crew-cut hawks and Johnnies as tie-dyed doves leave each side vaguely uneasy with the other.

The social impasse cried out for a diplomatic solution. And so began the annual Johnnie-Mid Seminar, a sort of scholarly summit. Students from both schools gather in one place to discuss a literary work, carefully chosen to appeal to the young philosophers on one side of the room and the future officers on the other. It's a chance for Johnnies to meet the midshipman beneath the cap, and for Mids to glimpse the Johnnies behind the book.

"Being a midshipman is not their entire identity -- it's just a piece of it," said Sarah Pearlman, 19, a St. John's sophomore from Teaneck, N.J. "And I like to find out what the other pieces are."

St. John's is the Great Books school, chartered in 1784, where students work their way from Homer to Heidegger in the original text but sometimes forget to wear shoes. Navy is the elite service academy, founded in 1845, a campus of 4,000 future leaders where beds are made with hospital corners and uniforms are crisply pressed. As colleges go, they couldn't be more different.

A group of about 60 midshipmen and three dozen Johnnies turned out for the latest seminar, held recently at historic McDowell Hall on the St. John's campus.

The St. John's contingent lurked timidly in a side room as midshipmen crowded into the reception room.

"There's a whole lot of people in uniform," one Johnnie said, peering around a corner.

"You'll be fine," a classmate reassured her.

Not so different

The two student populations aren't so different as one might think. They are mostly young, intelligent, well-educated products of the middle class, although students at the government-subsidized academy are somewhat less likely to be affluent or white and more apt to be male.

Occasionally, cross-campus romances blossom, and midshipmen sometimes show up at St. John's for weekend waltz parties. (Johnnies, for their part, are not a common sight on the academy grounds.)

But students on both sides say that they too seldom stop to speak, let alone socialize, in their daily travels around the Maryland capital. Navy whites give the midshipmen an air of adult authority that seems to intimidate Johnnies. Students sometimes think of the neighboring campus as enemy territory.

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