Wednesday, September 26, 2012


     In my last post, I explained how disillusionment with fulltime teaching at the University of Rochester in 1962-64, along with discovering that the Bible was an entirely human artifact, experiencing Kennedy's assassination in fall 1963, and chancing across a recruiting letter from the Naval Academy, led me to leave Rochester for a civilian assistant professorship at Annapolis in fall 1964.
     When I and my wife moved into our waterfront rental near Annapolis with our two pre-school children in July 1964, we felt we were escaping from a nightmare to a sunshiny morning.  We joined the Academy clubs -- officers', sailing, swimming, golfing -- and enrolled the kids in the Academy's K-3 primary school, all at no cost.  After being processed through a series of personnel offices, I underwent a battery of physical exams and an FBI security check.
     In the large, high-ceilinged, Victorian room that I and the twenty other English teachers, many of whom I got to know during the week before classes, shared as an office, I heard from the editor of American Quarterly that the article I'd submitted back at Rochester had been accepted.  Enclosed in his letter were clips from the anonymous readers' reports, the first typifying the rest:  "Boring, but okay."  Thrilled though I was by the acceptance, which I felt vindicated me against my Rochester detractors, I was cynical about it too.  "Boring, but okay" -- some showpiece of academic thought and care that.
     The Academy was very sociable.  In no time my wife and I had met a dozen young couples, civilian and military, whom we liked.  Near the end of August the social season officially got under way with an afternoon cruise on Chesapeake Bay in a fancy launch the Academy maintained for just such events.  Those of us new to the Navy were dazzled by the lavish food and drink served aboard by white-gloved Filipino orderlies.  As we disembarked, bursts of alcohol-fueled laughter filled the dusk.
     Even more impressive was the superintendent's reception, held a week later in the mansion, located next to the Academy chapel, that served as the superintendent's residence.  All the officers were in formal dress, the Navy people in white tunics with full braid and ribbons, the Marines in their extraordinary red, white, blue, and gold costumes.  Most of the women wore long gowns, most of the civilian men tuxedos.  We were greeted at the door by a receiving line of the Academy's top brass and their wives, anchored by the superintendent himself.  His residence was a three-story palace full of chandeliers and floor-length draperies, with formal gardens out back.  To the strains of a string quartet, scores of elegant couples moved through the halls, salons, and flowers, sipping champagne and sampling hors d'oeuvres.  The mansion, the music, the calling cards dropped from gloved hands into a bowl at the entrance were part of a centuries-old tradition that could mean getting killed, as countless plaques, tablets, and monuments on the Academy grounds testified.  Beneath all this gossamer finery lurked mortal danger.  I was snowed.
     My first day of teaching was a rude shock.
     We new teachers had been given an orientation of sorts to plebe English by the professor who chaired the course, an articulate Yale Ph.D. who, like most of the tenured EH&G civilians, had begun his career at Annapolis during or just after World War II.  He'd said just the kind of thing I wanted to hear -- our teaching mattered because these men would control nuclear weapons, we had to teach them to think, read, and write clearly, we had to instill in them the humane values of western civilization --, and he'd said it amusingly and convincingly.
     He'd also told us the rituals to expect, like the mids standing at attention while reporting attendance.  But he'd barely hinted at what turned out to be the central fact of every one of my four plebe English sections from the start.  Half the men in  every class were too tired to stay awake.  The first day, many simply put their heads down on the writing arms of their chairs when I gave the at-ease signal and fell asleep.  Others sat upright with their heads slack-jawed on their chests, likewise oblivious.  Still others made a pretense of propping a book or notebook on the writing arm, then scrunched down to sleep behind it.  One pale, sick-looking mid unnerved me by rolling his eyeballs up into his skull whenever he nodded off.  Another held his eyelids open with his fingers and stared at me with blank, bloodshot, saucer-like eyes.  One snored so loudly I had to stop the class to wake him up.  Books and pens kept clattering to the floor, nudged off desks by unconscious heads and arms or dropped from unconscious hands.  One mid barely caught himself from falling out of his chair.
     At the end of the day I staggered back to my desk in the bullpen, stunned.  I and several other new teachers, civilian and military, gathered in a knot of disbelief and began swapping atrocities.  Suddenly a gray-haired man I hadn't met joined us and launched into a deadpan harangue.
     "My good fellows," he said, "welcome to the United States Naval Academy.  The other day, our lord and master" -- meaning the course chairman -- "told you of the glorious rewards of teaching midshipmen.  What he did not tell you, indeed, what our Navy lords and masters never tell anyone, is that the real aim of the United States Naval Academy is to transform the average, decent, acne-plagued, eighteen-year-old American adolescent, within the space of four short years, into a perfect monster of ignorance and incivility.  They begin the process, gentlemen, by depriving the plebe fresh from farm, suburb, or city, during the first six months of his naval career, of a modicum of the sleep he needs, which naturally gets him in the habit of sleeping through anything irrelevant, like his classes, to his becoming an accomplished lout.
     "The pitiable creature must quickly learn, if he is to survive, to accept stupefaction as the norm of his Naval Academy existence.  Stupefied, he stumbles from one class to the next, not knowing whether he's in Bull, Steam, or Dago," -- he hissed the mid slang for EH&G, engineering, and foreign languages melodramatically -- "seeing his teachers as nothing but diabolical tormentors who will not let him do the one thing he longs from the bottom of his heart to do --  sleep, sleep, sl-e-e-e-e-p.  Sooner or later he must accept his destiny, if he is ever to graduate and get his commission, and become the brute our lords and masters want."
     I liked this bitter comedian at once.  My first months at the Annapolis gave me a similarly sardonic opinion of the place.  Though plebe hazing eased and some of my students did marginally acceptable work, I was appalled at what I faced every day in the classroom, where the war against "stupefaction," as the bitter comedian put it, never ended.  In one unusually drowsy section, I was struck dumb when, having had my eyes on the blackboard a minute, I turned back and found more than half the class wandering around at the rear of the room like restless zombies, which they were allowed to do to stay awake.
     The sleeping was symptomatic of an anti-intellectualism that pervaded the Yard, one that followed seamlessly from what I came to understand was the Navy's top priority at Annapolis -- training the mids to follow orders.  Plebe hazing was the system's bedrock.  Though the harshest kinds of hazing had supposedly been outlawed during the decade before I arrived, they were all still secrectly practiced, as several mids confided to me.  Plebes were still ordered to swim to Baltimore after lights out:   lie on their bellies and pretend to swim the crawl for hours.  Or their gear was trashed just before inspection.  Or they were ordered on illegal scavenger hunts over the wall into downtown Annapolis to steal public or private property.  Or they were given far more trivia to memorize than officially allowed.
     Learning to fear, depnd on, and live by the chain  of command was the ultimate reality of a midshipman's life.  In most respects, plebe English and, as I gathered from colleagues in other subjects, the entire Academy curriculum was more like that of a second-rate high school than a college or university.  In January, at the end of my first semester, I wrote myself a memo of everything I disliked about teaching at Annapolis.
     Yet shaken as I was,  I began the second semester looking forward to my section of first-class English, a semester-long survey of world lit required of all senior-year midshipmen.  Designed to expose them to works like the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Inferno, Hamlet, Candide, Faust, Moby Dick, and The Stranger just as they were getting their commissions and joining the fleet, it represented what I most wanted to do as an Annapolis teacher.
     But however hardened I'd been by my first semester with the plebes, I was cut to the quick by how many first classmen settled down to sleep before we were two minutes into the class.  What galled me most was that they didn't even look tired.  They were so used to sleeping in class that they did it automatically.
     All but a couple of the fifteen men in the section proved in succeeding weeks to be utterly uninterested in the material and unprepared for the reading and writing assignments.  It was as though Homer, Shakespeare, and Camus were from another universe.  All that mattered to these elaborately fed, dressed, exercised, and trained young animals was escaping from the Yard.  They thought of nothing else, they lived for nothing else.  I and my babble about life and death, war and peace, appearance and reality was to them no different from inspection or forming for chow.  It was all part of the same enchainment, one that after four years had become so trivial, boring, and banal that they found no meaning in it save for the one great commandment:  fuck off whenever possible.  Trying to make them read Virgil was like trying to make a pack of wild dogs eat celery.
     What to do about their mid-term grades?  As in my first-semester plebe classes, I knew that on the basis of their tests and papers I should fail almost everyone.  Not to fail at least half would be a travesty of the academic standards I'd absorbed from a decade at Amherst, Harvard, Stanford, and Rochester.  Stretching, straining, and fudging as generously as I could, I came up with a grading curve centered at  D plus/C minus.  My three second-semester plebe sections were better:  they bell-curved roughly around C.
     Thus I was caught completely off guard by what happened two weeks later.  We were all summoned by the chairman of plebe English to a meeting in the bullpen, where he told us that, because low grades threatened to keep too many mids from making the C averages they needed to graduate, the Navy's Bureau of Personnel (BuPers) had ordered the Academy to raise grades instantly and across the board.  What this meant for plebe English, he explained, was that at least fifteen percent of all final grades must be A, at least thirty-five percent B.  In other words, half the plebe class must get B's or better in English.
     From the way he announced it, he plainly saw nothing odd or wrong in the order, winding up his briefing on a cheerful, let's-all-pitch-in note:  "We don't have to give fifteen percent A's and thirty-five percent B's in every section," he said.  "A bad section can get less, a good section more.  We've got lots of flexibility."
     Dead silence.  Finally the bitter comedian stood up and peered around at our frozen, open-mouthed faces.  "Gentlemen," he said, "our lords and masters are about to lead us into exciting new realms of academic infamy.  The least we can do is follow like good little sheep."  He sat down.
     Uproar.  No one came to the chairman's defense.  Among the loudest protesters were the officers.  Sputtered one jg, "The whole time I was in the fleet, I was trying to find the real Navy.  I thought for sure I'd find it at Annapolis.  Have I ever!"
     A Marine captain:  "Outrageous!  Absolutely outrageous!  What the hell do they think they're doing?"
     So furious and insubordinate were the cries that the bullpen doors and windows were shut in order to prevent any outsider from hearing.  Clearly, further protest would be dangerous -- for the officers, impossible.  Having gotten a direct order, they could be court-martialled for disobeying.  Only the civilians were legally free to act, yet everyone knew that resistance would be seen by the administration, including the new civilian dean who'd signed the order, as grounds for dismissal.
     From the moment I grasped what the chairman was saying, I knew I'd not only have to fight the quotas to the bitter end but also, in all probability, leave Annapolis.  Obviously the Navy had decided it needed as many officers as possible for the Vietnam war buildup, then at full throttle.  My opposition to that buildup heightened my revulsion at the grade-fixing scheme.  Both seemed to me perfect reasons for not allowing any military establishment to determine policy.  The essential fraudulence, self-delusion, and stupidity of the military mind seemed clear to me in both cases.
     After a month of stonewalling and sandbagging, the Academy chain of command finally routed my protest through to the dean.  It read, "1.  Several weeks ago [the course chairman] announced to the Fourth Class Committee your instruction on grade quotas, and since that time I have been demoralized as a teacher of midshipmen and disillusioned with the Naval Academy.  2.  I feel it is my duty to inform you that if the device of grade quotes is not disavowed by the Academy I will resign my position of the expiration of my contract next year.  I have reached this decision with regret, since I have enjoyed many aspects of my work here.  Respectfully."
     Common sense told me the gesture was futile, yet deep down I hoped it might help bring the Navy to its senses.  A week later such illusions were blown to bits.  The dean told me by letter that since grade quotas were the result of "most careful consideration," the faculty would "have to abide" by them.  If I couldn't, he'd be "pleased" to accept my resignation but would like "reasonable notification" if I meant to resign before my contract expired.
     So much for heroics.  Fortunately, the academic job market back then was still good, and the dean's letter convinced me that the only way to avoid even murkier backwaters than Annapolis was to re-commit myself to the academic ratrace I'd left at Rochester and publish.  I started serious work on a project I'd been toying with since my article was accepted -- expanding my dissertation to include two more authors and getting it placed at the best university press I could.
     My motive for trying to get my name on a scholarly book was hardly love of learning.  It was to get tenure and a leg up on a full professorship at a decent school.  Convinced literary scholarship was incurably self-reflexive, I was nevertheless willing to do it to escape from the Academy to the kind of place that at least wouldn't fix grades.
     With this goal in mind, I plunged during the summer vacation into ten-hour research and writing days.  Aiding me were the extraordinary privileges I had as an Academy faculty member at the Library of Congress in Washington, where I proceeded to put in three solid months of six-day work weeks.  If all went according to plan, a year hence I'd be teaching anywhere but Annapolis, with everything but the writing done for a publishable book.
     But of course nothing ever goes exactly according to plan.