Life, Death, and Literature at the U.S. Naval Academy

By Bruce Fleming

New Press. 274 pp. $24.95

Bruce Fleming should get down on his knees every evening and thank the Lord for the tenure system. Now in his early fifties, Fleming has taught English at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis for about two decades, during which he has repeatedly and insistently expressed opinions that, at least within the culture of the academy, are decidedly contrarian. He says the academy "is both homoerotic and homophobic," he doesn't much like war, and at a time when the armed forces are falling all over themselves to embrace diversity, he has written (in this newspaper's Outlook section) against affirmative action.

In an ordinary institution of higher education, such outspoken dissent from the prevailing orthodoxy probably would pass with little notice, but the Naval Academy isn't an ordinary institution of higher education. Yes, it offers its students a four-year undergraduate course of study -- heavily weighted toward "courses in such subjects as 'calc' (calculus), 'diffy-Q' (differential equations), 'wires' (electrical engineering), physics (no short form), and 'weps" (weapons)" -- but it also expects them to graduate fully qualified to serve as officers in the Navy or the Marines. It represents itself as a college, but in fact it is a military school, and the conflict between the two is never-ending.

Fleming makes a big point of that in "Annapolis Autumn" -- the title bears little relationship to the contents, which range widely among the seasons -- the longest chapter of which is about two days aboard a Navy submarine en route from Connecticut to Maryland. "The gulf between what we do in our English classrooms," Fleming writes, "or for that matter in the other academic classrooms, and what the midshipmen are asked to do by the military side of the [academy] sometimes seems very wide." The military talks endlessly about "motivation" and expects what students are taught to be "motivational." Fleming writes:

"Even literature has to be motivational. The problem is, what we teach in English departments -- what we call 'great literature' -- rarely is. I sometimes teach Tim O'Brien's short story 'The Things They Carried.' It has the pedagogical advantage over other stories we read of being about war, a subject of interest to our students. The trouble is, it doesn't seem to encourage action the way they think it ought to. Yet they're not deterred by this. Invariably they begin the discussion telling me it does. . . .

"The war novels we read in class, such as All Quiet on the Western Front, are not stories to rally the troops; instead they show the waste and pointlessness of war. . . . This, I am now no longer surprised to discover, is not what our idealistic students want to hear. They want to hear that war is worth it . . . and that we can attain, in every sense, what we set out to get."

All of this is absolutely accurate. What literature offers is only rarely what the military wants. Not merely is most of the best literature about war at heart antiwar, but literature by its very nature encourages people to ask questions, to see the complexity of life, to understand limits, to know that not everything is possible. The military, for entirely legitimate reasons, wants those who serve in it to feel that they can do anything they set out to do: "In the conservative, and hence military, mindset, everything is a 'choice,' and motivation alone decides whether you succeed or fail." The Naval Academy believes, with utter sincerity, "that personal motivation alone determines all outcomes," and while it's understandable that for Fleming this "sometimes becomes frightening, rather than merely frustrating," it also should be acknowledged (as Fleming does not) that his own educational mission and the academy's are almost entirely different.

Fleming does admit that after Vietnam, the academy adopted "a more diversified curriculum." Its motives were not entirely pure -- "to make us a more attractive institution to the increasingly antimilitary population" -- but as a result students are now permitted to major in English, history, political science and economics as well as the traditional "engineering-heavy course load," and more than 30 percent of students now do just that. This comes closer to a traditional liberal education than is available to students at the Enemy -- the U.S. Military Academy at West Point -- and, or so it seems to me, is something for which Fleming should be grateful.

As it happens, I spent a couple of days at West Point a year and a half ago, talking with students and professors and giving a lecture to the plebe class on the subject of (!) reading. I came away deeply impressed by the small band of English teachers, a group about the same size as the one at Annapolis but unable to offer a full major, yet determined to impress upon students the rich lessons that literature can teach. It's a battlefield, as the saying goes, and West Point seems to regard the English staff as a necessary nuisance -- one thing that both military academies have in common -- but the teachers soldier on, as, apparently, they do at Annapolis.

Fleming himself seems to be a good teacher, though one could hardly expect him to portray himself as anything else, and he seems to have figured out how to adapt to and flourish within a culture quite at odds with "liberal me with my Quaker education and my nuanced 'yes-but' reaction to everything." Few of his students seem to be deeply interested in literature, but he likes their eagerness, their trim appearance, their good manners. Visitors to the academy invariably are delighted by them:

"Students at what midshipmen call 'real schools' slouch, avoid the gym, binge-drink, chain-smoke, wear caps inside, and never, ever, say 'sir' or 'ma'am' to a professor. Not to mention that our students aren't -- for lack of a better word -- sullen, something I remember being in college. Teaching plebes at the Academy, I sometimes think -- at least when they are at their best -- is like tussling with twenty golden retrievers at once. Who wouldn't be exhilarated?"

The problem is, at least as Fleming reports it, that the quality of students isn't as high as it could or should be. Serving a while back on the admissions board, Fleming discovered that "half our class was let in the back door, under less competitive circumstances and typically with lower indices of capability than those we usually use as our minima." Athletics have a lot to do with that, and so does affirmative action. Annapolis is no longer the elite (or lily white, or all-male) institution it was, which amounts to a loss taken in one respect to encourage gains in others. Probably it's a short-term loss, as the academic performance of minorities is likely to improve in the future, but it's better to acknowledge the situation, as Fleming does, than pretend it doesn't exist, as the academy does.

Though he does say some things that need to be said, Fleming isn't always quite so appealing a character as he clearly believes himself to be. Smugness and self-righteousness are lapses into which he sometimes descends, and so is arrogance: "I am probably more fearless talking about race in public than is usual for a white American, by dint of having lived in Rwanda." It says here, if you want to be fearless about something, fine, but you don't need to tell us how fearless you are in the process. Fleming, too cocksure for his own good, can't resist the temptation.