In Annapolis Autumn: Life, Death, and Literature at the U.S. Naval Academy, Bruce Fleming, an English professor with some 20 years under his belt at the academy, initiates a no-holds-barred conversation about the often thankless task of teaching literature to Naval cadets. His anecdotes and analyses, while germane to his situation, often speak to a plight that reaches beyond an institution whose students are paid to attend class.
What's remarkable, if not from page one, is that this intermittently episodic and polemical book manages to be more than what Naval loyalists surely will see it as: the fulminations of a bitter civilian academic. Fleming actually is more resigned than bitter about walking a weird professional tightrope -- and tight it is -- between the inquisitive tradition of the liberal arts and the crudely pragmatic, deeply hierarchal culture of a military school.
This anecdotal first-person account is told from an insider's outsider perspective -- the author is not "in" the military so much as he is a pedagogical vendor -- and Fleming elucidates hazing rituals and other aspects of the academy's culture without the hushed reverence or snide cynicism that can accompany writing on the military.
The disconnects within what Fleming defines as the Naval Academy's classicalism are nowhere more apparent than in the classroom. There are some wonderful, if abbreviated, Stand and Deliver-style scenes that make plain his plight. For instance, in response to anti-war literature from the likes of Erich Maria Remarque and Tim O'Brien, young cadets observe, "It doesn't make you want to attack."
While the classroom is Fleming's palette and arguably his greatest anecdotal fount, it's not his only concern. The contradictions inherent at the academy make for easy and irresistible pickings. For starters, there's the thorny fact that an institution funded by taxpayers and dedicated to the protection of the public fosters a culture of downright contempt for these same people.
"I wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard the phrase 'civilian scum' here at Annapolis," Fleming writes. "The midshipmen are told, and most believe, that what they are doing is a higher, purer, better thing than the lives of the people not fortunate enough to live on their side of the Wall that surrounds the Academy."
Fleming is, however, keenly aware of all that wall separates. His students don't slouch, or miss class for keg stand-related injuries. They hardly even pout. And Fleming isn't shy about defending his school -- and his marginalized purpose there -- against other academics who condescendingly question its educational legitimacy.
Certainly, Fleming can come off as self-serving, if not self-righteous, and those who can't stomach criticism of affirmative action unfortunately will stoop to label him a bigot of one form or another.
But these criticisms lose the point. Fleming notes that military culture remains a mystery because the military wants it that way. As with so many institutions, its selfless purposes mask a more immediate one: self-preservation. Shedding light on it, as Fleming does, is undeniably interesting.
At the same time, it does beg the question: Why, for all his mixed feelings, has Fleming bothered to stick it out there?
Perhaps injecting brazen cadets with a dose of moral complexity feels more useful, or even more subversive, than being surrounded by like-minded Marxists on the greater American quad.
-- John Dicker
Annapolis Autumn: Life, Death, and Literature at the U.S. Naval Academy
by Bruce Fleming
The New Press, $24.95/hardcover