Midshipman Blaine Moore says he was pleasantly surprised to learn he was named a Rhodes Scholar, but it might not have been a shock to those who eat with the Naval Academy senior every day.
A squad leader responsible for about a dozen students in his company, Moore has held court this semester at meals by engaging them in all-but-mandatory discussions on nuclear proliferation, Darfur, the rise of China and the intersection of religion and politics.
"When you go abroad, in uniform, you represent the military service and your country and I think it's important to have a certain requisite knowledge of our standing in the world," he said.
Such knowledge also comes in handy in the notoriously grueling interviews before the 16 Rhodes selection committees, where more than 200 finalists for the prestigious two- or three-year study grants to attend Oxford University are whittled down to 32.
The panels have been known to ask questions as esoteric as "Beethoven or Wagner? Go." For Moore, these wild cards from the seven-member committee choosing among applicants in Florida, Tennessee and Alabama on Nov. 17 included the pop-quiz variety from his specialty in organic chemistry - what's the difference between pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics? - and broader questions on what he was reading.
Moore's answers stood out among an amazing group of students, said Ralph Smith, the secretary of the committee and general counsel of the University of Alabama system.
"It was clear that this was a thoughtful person who has read widely about the great issues of the day, from military and strategic issues to ethical issues," Smith said. "He had outstanding academic credentials in a very rigorous field at a very rigorous institution, and a clear desire for service. ... We have to be proud that the nation is producing young men and women of his caliber."
Moore, a Cordova, Tenn., native, is the academy's ninth Rhodes Scholar in the past four years and 45th overall. He is ranked first in his class academically with a 4.0 grade-point average and is independently researching the healing power of organic chemicals in marine life through the Naval Academy's Trident Scholar program. In his spare time, he runs cross-country and competes with the school's Power-Lifting Club.
Of all he discussed in the Rhodes interviews, Moore said he most enjoyed sallying forth on C.S. Lewis, the Oxford professor known popularly for his Chronicles of Narnia series who also wrote widely on Christianity. Moore talked at length about Mere Christianity, one of Lewis' landmark works, and why it mattered to him.
"What I really like about it is this idea of a moral conscience that's an absolute like mathematical principles, but unlike mathematical principles, it's innate to human beings," he said.
Moore said he has even fantasized about meeting friends in a pub "over pints and pipes" to talk about great issues of the day or read their prose, as Lewis did in a group called "The Inklings" with Oxford linguist J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and other books on Middle Earth.
He plans to study pharmacology in his first year at Oxford and global health science in the second, and hopes to enter medical school after that, he said. Moore plans a career as a clinician and medical researcher in the military.
Since he won, he's borne the brunt of more than a few jokes about his intelligence, most of which come immediately after he's done anything "moderately ungraceful," he said, such as getting lost in Birmingham, Ala., the day after the interviews.
Still, hundreds of classmates have written congratulations, which have also poured into his family. Moore's father is a lawyer in Cordova, and his brother Miller plans to enter the Navy after graduation from the University of Tennessee.
"He cannot wait to drink their kind of tea and learn their habits," said his mother, Cathy, who admitted to some surprise that he was named but then doubled back, saying she shouldn't have been. "He's always been destined for great things."