Teaching Mids to act morally, ethically

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Jacob Wingebach, a Naval Academy senior, is standing on a desk in front of a room full of freshmen. One of them in the front row is crying.

"It was your choice to accept your appointment to the Naval Academy," Wingebach tells them as he paces on the desk in front of 40 stressed freshmen. "You will be held to higher standards, and you will be held accountable for your actions. And you will hold each other accountable to those standards.

"That is what makes us different. That is what makes us special."

This is "honor training," where the mission is not to study ethics but to "teach someone to have ethics." It's the root of the academy's intensive character-development program that emerged five years ago to restore integrity to the school amid cheating, car theft and drug scandals.

But in the wake of allegations that two Navy football players raped a fellow midshipman at an off-campus party two weeks ago, questions have re-emerged about the program's effectiveness.

In two separate reports obtained by The Sun, graduate students who studied the academy's ethics instruction found it short on practical learning, leaving students "apathetic" and, in some cases, calling it "a waste of time." One study found the midshipmen too "controlled," without time to build character on their own.

The school administration, as well, is torn on how to teach the students to act morally and ethically. On one side are academics who believe ethics and leadership should be taught only in the dorm and on the drill field; on the other, the program's officers want to see the subject made an academic discipline, rather than a series of isolated courses.

"When I came a year and a half ago, I was struck initially by the lack of support for this program," said Lt. John Winship, who is in charge of honor training. "My role is ... to sell the program to the school. People think this is some touchy-feely aberration."

For two straight years, the character development department has lost its bid to institute a minor in leadership. It also has had to turn to the alumni association to fund a professor's chair to teach leadership.

Behavior under scrutiny

The behavior of midshipmen has often come under scrutiny, from a century ago when Annapolitans complained midshipmen were challenging them to duels, to 50 years ago when the commandant crammed the brigade into the chapel to teach them right from wrong. These days it is a more difficult and vague task - especially in a place that midshipmen say expects them to act like adults but treats them like children.

Midshipmen's lives are closely regimented, from them being told when to eat, sleep and get their hair cut, to doing their laundry and planning their schedules. Capt. Sam Locklear, school commandant, said the academy "routinely" discusses student performance, good and bad, with parents.

Much of the ethics training at the academy is addressed in classroom courses taken during the plebe and junior years. One of the reports, written by Lt. Robert Kennedy while at the Naval Postgraduate School, found that midshipmen did not absorb ethical thinking or leadership from the classes.

Many students Kennedy interviewed for his thesis said the classes' heavy workload made them "bitter" because the courses count for fewer credits, suggesting that the administration finds them unessential. In interviews this week, school officials said the classes are considered important and are weighted according to the hours they require.

Superintendent John R. Ryan said the administration is solidly behind the program.

"The tragic incidents like the one we saw earlier this month are still going to happen," Ryan said, referring to the rape allegations. "But ethics and character development are fundamental to the academy. Can they be better? I think they can. But we don't just teach ethics in a class, we teach it in [the dorm], in the brigade and on the athletic field."

Still, another thesis found similar results to Kennedy's in a broader study that looked at more than classes. Lt. Robert Thomas, who completed the study this year, compared the Naval Academy to the Military Academy and found that the students and administration at West Point took leadership and ethics training more seriously, with a more encompassing approach.

West Point cadets become leaders and role models to their peers as sophomores, whereas midshipmen must wait until their junior year, Thomas wrote. He found that more of the cadets' teachers came from a military background, providing more realistic experiences for them to study.

He also found students at the Naval Academy to be far too controlled and not left alone enough to practice their "character training."

Senior officers are "overly directive in the daily operations of the Brigade of Midshipmen," Thomas wrote. "Junior Officers, in turn, are pressured to become overly involved in the operations of their respective companies. The midshipmen, not being told why they are being micro-managed and closely supervised, become apathetic and cynical."

Those reports echoed the sentiments of former Marine Corps Commandant Charles C. Krulak, who earlier this year said he found other academies "concentrating on the right stuff" when it came to character development and using less "mumbo jumbo," as he described the Naval Academy's program.

School officials have been careful to note that no amount of training could prevent every student from behaving in ways that could - and have - embarrassed the academy.

"You don't just one day walk into the gates of the Naval Academy and have good character," said Locklear. "It's a lot of hard work - and it's not that easy. It's a lifelong process that we are trying to compress into four years."

But Locklear said the school must at least try to teach ethics since the Navy "has to hire everyone we graduate." And it must also justify an education that costs more than $200,000 per midshipman by turning out upstanding graduates.

Not taught in classes alone

"You don't teach ethics in lectures and classes alone," said Capt. Mike Kehoe, the school's character development officer. "But I think people can be taught to be a person of character by being exposed to philosophies and examples, and then living in an environment where these things are valued."

For the most part, the group of 40 haggard-looking plebes attending honor training appeared eager to listen, ready for someone to give deeper meaning to why they have come to this school on the water where upperclassmen berate them for not having their hat on straight or their shoes properly tied.

At another honor class on "conflict resolution" led by two upperclassmen, 20 plebes looked relieved to be in a relaxed atmosphere where stress-reduction techniques were being taught. They were silent for most of an hour, but senior Dan Post and three other student instructors said later that they were sure the session had got through to them - because it did when they were plebes.

"I remember when I was going through these classes how important it was just to see an upperclassman that wasn't mean to you," Post said.

Sophomore Trip Ferguson leaned down under a desk to pick up a water bottle left behind by a plebe. Reading the name on the back, he said, "See, Ms. Alfredo here left her canteen. These are the little things you don't get at a normal college. She will have to earn this back. She has made a mistake. But this is the kind of mistake that could cost lives. That kind of mistake builds character."

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