IN LATE 1993, when a cheating scandal at the U.S. Naval Academy made national headlines, more than a few people opined that the negative attention was unfair. The same problems at civilian universities wouldn't even make the back page, they argued. Why should the academy be treated differently?
The answer: For the same reason that its 150th anniversary, being celebrated this fall, is an event noteworthy enough to warrant a special stamp issue from the U.S. Postal Service. For the same reason that the annual photo of newly graduated ensigns tossing their caps skyward has become one of this country's most potent patriotic images. For the same reason that -- despite the academy's periodic scandals and ongoing controversies -- thousands of visitors yearly come to the banks of the Severn River to experience the unique culture of "the Yard."
The Naval Academy cannot be compared to civilian colleges or universities. It is more than an institution of higher learning, more even than a training ground for future leaders responsible for our national security. It's a part of American mythology, a symbol of certain ideals -- loyalty, commitment, patriotism and honor -- that Americans cherish and continue to want to believe in. That is why the academy may well be Maryland's most important symbol. The academy helps to give the state a national profile. People come to Maryland expressly to see it. When a young person says he has been accepted to Annapolis, his community often treats him as a local hero. Marylanders may think of Annapolis first as the state capital. But to the rest of the country, Annapolis is the academy.
The reality, of course, is that the academy is not a perfect place, nor one populated with mythological heroes. The midshipmen are young, some of them struggling to grow up in an incredibly demanding environment. The officers who run the institution are human beings with human flaws. And yet, it would be too cynical -- indeed, a mistake -- to downplay the significance of this 150th birthday celebration. For all its troubles, the academy still retains its mystique, symbolic significance and practical purpose as a producer of quality leaders. After a century and a half, the myth still lives -- and Maryland should be grateful that it does.