A Strategic Thinker Can Bloom from a STEM

Recent U.S. Navy guidance directed at least 85% of new officers must come from technical degree programs commonly known as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). This has rightfully generated a fair amount of discussion in Navy circles. What I find surprising, and insulting, is degree to which a good portion of the discussion is one-sided. The superiority of liberal arts and humanities degrees are touted and accusations flow that STEM degree-holders are all socially awkward, pocket protector-wearing poindexters who – when they are not underway – still live in their parents’ basements.

I have the Conn!
I have the Conn!

Some even claim this to be the end of the U.S. Navy officer corps’ ability to critically analyze and think strategically on matters of policy or foreign affairs. They imply that STEM majors could never understand the complexities of the liberal arts while in almost the same breath they claim that any lack of technical knowledge and understanding from humanities majors can be easily overcome with additional studying and on-the-job training.

In an effort to remove as much ambiguity as possible, and for brevity, I will take a moment to directly state some of what I think on this subject:

– Possessing an intellectual curiosity is much more important than what someone already knows when developing as a naval officer.

– Being a naval officer is a diverse and complex profession that changes as you progress in your career, so one single major or type of major does not best prepare someone for the job in its entirety.

– There are an incredible number of open-source resources available (e.g. subscriptions to Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, The Economist, and countless lectures from major universities available on the internet) for someone with a STEM degree to broaden their horizons beyond the technical. In fact, anyone desiring a career as a naval officer should do just that.

– I neither agree nor disagree with the current technical-to-humanities degree percentages required at commissioning. I do not have an adequate enough knowledge of the statistical analysis behind that decision to comment one way or the other on the specific percentage.

– And lastly, although a STEM degree is not the end-all, be-all for developing a naval officer, it does provide a good basis to develop a successful division officer immediately out of college.

It is worth asking what the U.S. Navy needs from the majority of officers immediately after commissioning. It needs them to be division officers. They need to lead a division and a watch team. The U.S. Navy does not immediately need someone to write the next volume of The Influence of Sea Power Upon History. It does need people who can do that within its ranks, so it is important to ensure they are recognized and promoted. That is a long-term issue that should not and cannot be solved by simply adjusting what types of majors are commissioned. It is a separate discussion for how the Navy manages its evaluation processes and selection boards.

The dynamic nature and remoteness of the maritime environment has always made naval warfare more complex than its land counterpart. Present ships and aircraft are extremely complex technical systems, so a firm basis in technical knowledge can be advantageous. To effectively drive and fight a ship, a division officer should have an understanding of topics like buoyancy, stability, sonar propagation, radar propagation, electrical generation and distribution, thermodynamics, and potentially nuclear engineering. Clearly many humanities majors have mastered all of these things in the past and will continue to do so in the future. A STEM degree is not essential to being a successful division officer, but it can help with initial success.

Alfred Thayer Mahan may have possessed one of the greatest strategic maritime minds in the history of the U.S. Navy. There can be no doubt that his works had an incredible influence on naval thought. But just as some assume that too technical of a mind detracts from effective performance as a naval officer, so to can too literary of one. Maybe if Mahan had a more diverse mind he may have been able to avoid such an evaluation when commanding USS Chicago:

“[Captain Mahan’s] interests are entirely outside the service, for which, I am satisfied, he cares but little, and is therefore not a good naval officer.  He is not at all observant regarding officers tending to the ship’s general welfare or appearance, nor does he inspire or suggest anything in this connection.  In fact, the first few weeks of the cruise she [that is, USS Chicago] was positively discreditable.  In fact, CAPT Mahan’s interests lie wholly in the direction of literary work and in no other way connected with the service.”

In closing I will respond to the claim that having an 85% STEM requirement for commissioning will result in the same percentage across the entire officer corps. This is ridiculous because everyone who commissions does not continue to promote. As I discussed above, a solid technical understanding can help at the lower tactical levels, but as one progresses, a much broader understanding of the world is necessary. Individuals with these capabilities and understanding should be recognized and advanced regardless of their academic degree. Performance at lower levels can serve as part of advancement and selection, but previous success does not guarantee effective future performance. This is not a problem to find a solution for at commissioning. It is a dynamic issue to be evaluated throughout the personnel system at all levels of command. Just as the history or philosophy major can end up being the best Engineering Officer of the Watch (EOOW) in the wardroom, so too can the physics or chemistry major end up writing the next revolutionary strategic or operational concept for the Navy.

LT Jason H. Chuma is a U.S. Navy submarine officer who has deployed to the U.S. 4th Fleet and U.S. 6th Fleet areas of responsibility. He is a graduate of the Citadel, holds a master’s degree from Old Dominion University, and has completed the Intermediate Command and Staff Course from the U.S. Naval War College. His current assignment is to the Navy Warfare Development Command where he serves as a member of the CNO’s Rapid Innovation Cell. He can be followed on Twitter @Jason_Chuma.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

22 thoughts on “A Strategic Thinker Can Bloom from a STEM”

  1. Mahan caught a lot of flak throughout his career for thinking critically and encouraging others to do the same. This rubbed many people the wrong way, and led to some scathing critiques from many senior officers who were part of the “old guard.” Rather than a reason to pooh-pooh literary-savvy officers, I think this is exactly what the Navy needs.

  2. Also, I think the point to be made for pushing back against requiring so many STEM majors is one that Mahan made 135 years ago: if folks without a college degree can be trained to understand and operate the complex machinery that makes up the Navy, why do we need so many technical degrees to do so in our officer corps? You mention “[The Navy] needs [a majority of its officers] to be division officers.” I agree, but the most important aspects of division officership aren’t technical–they are moral and professional. The culture created by focusing almost solely on a technical education creates a bunch of technical specialists. There are plenty of good officers that are also STEM majors–the majority are, obviously. But we can improve the entire lot by focusing more on the moral and professional education advocated by that “ineffective performer,” Alfred Thayer Mahan.

  3. Jason,
    Great post. While Hipple and others may fire back at me, I think our Military needs more STEM thinkers rather than less. My belief comes from a few experiences, 1. I am a guy who has always been more comfortable analyzing literature than trying to solve a quadratic equation but I went to a school where a BA was not an option. I was forced to learn via a STEM curriculum and it has only benefited me. I think the unspoken argument behind the “STEM is bad, we need more humanities types ” is that those arguing that position are not very good at, and probably afraid of, STEM subjects and therefore go with what is more comfortable.
    2. I have seen many a STEM guy or gal who could write, speak, and think broadly vis a vis humanities heavy topics. I have yet to find a humanities person who could diagram a complex system, think statistically or probabilistically, or be comfortable with the theory behind an internal combustion engine while also being able to solve the math necessary to make it work. I agree completely that this is not a binary argument, senior leaders from our entire military cannot be just left or right brain people-they need to be both. I do think that as we grow junior leaders, those inclined to take their fourth English lit class could benefit from a basic engineering or stats course and those who only want to turn wrenches and solve equations should probably write some good creative stories.
    3. I think the more we push our comfort zones while young, and really drive to understand those topics that we may not enjoy, the more we will be agile and capable thinkers when we have bigger responsibilities and more stuff on our collars.

    So, all you wishy washy humanities types (like me), sit down with a Ti-89 and try to solve some of the hard stuff, take apart an engine, and don’t always revert to the mean by proclaiming because you read T.E. Lawrence as an undergrad you are a “strategic thinker”

    Chris Barber

  4. Chris, I don’t think anybody is making a qualitative assessment of STEM majors. Since Mahan’s day, the STEM-types have ruled the Navy. The question, despite a century-and-a-half of clamoring for a more moral and professional curriculum at places like USNA, is why we are now suddenly in need of 85% of our officers to come from these majors? That is a HUGE chunk and comes at the expense of courses I would argue are more important—naval history, warfare, ethics, leadership, and the like. The overwhelming majority of our incoming officers are not taking “their 4th English lit class”–they are trying to slog through Calc III and Diff EQs, while slightly paraphrasing some Wikipedia passages on Charles Stewart and Guadalcanal.

  5. “Possessing an intellectual curiosity is much more important than what someone already knows when developing as a naval officer.”

    That is the key attribute for usccess in any line of endeavor!

    Home Run!


  6. Chris, I’m curious…does your logic work both ways. If most naval officers (prospective naval officers) are already inclinded toward STEM subjects, would it beneift them to have their boundaries pushed and force them to study some history or read some literature or learn about a culture they may interact with? Does balance matter, or are we still playing zero sum games developed from the STEM equations? – BJ

  7. If someone with an engineering background can become a good “Strategic Thinker,” why can’t someone with a non-hard science background be a good divo or watchstander, even in the ship’s Engineerind dept? The reason why there has been a reaction against the 85% STEM mandate is that it’s pushing out virtually everyone else from other academic backgrounds. It’s not that the History majors think that they’re smarter than the engineers, but that there is some value to that perspective and it ought to be represented. The Navy needs to make sure that it has people who are actual experts in multiple important fields, many of which are engineering, but also the other stuff like History, English, Econ, International Relations, etc. The value of Mahan the theorist to the US Navy probably outweighs the value of Mahan the bad ship’s CO. The real mystery is why there isn’t an effort to encourage fluency in foreign languages (either by bringing in people who are fluent, requiring fluency through the commissioning programs, or an actual rigorous program of language education for people in the service, completion of which is required for advancement).

  8. Great post. NOW, I am a NESEP retired officer and a bit of history here please. Because of a paucity of line officers post WWII the Navy created NESEP. The USNA actually in the late 60’s was put on academic probation by SACU because the curriculum and quality of staff was lacking….massively lacking. NESEP shored up the marginal officer corps for years as the Navy tried to fix the issue with USNA and ROTC input. Seems we have slipped back into soft academics again…will be tough to solve. AND the technology is even more complex than that of 1960….what indeed goes around comes around.

  9. I didn’t argue that history majors are smarter/better qualified than engineers, or vice versa. The problem with this argument is that it typically ends up with people asserting the superiority of their own educational background. The correct solution is having people expert in their field, whatever the background. No one is arguing that the Navy doesn’t need engineers…but rather that the Navy needs really good engineers, as well as truly gifted people with a background in other things like history, foreign languages, economics, etc. Requiring that 85% of new officers need a particular degree is worthless if the education behind that degree isn’t rigorous. Fix the engineering curriculum at the Naval Academy if you think that it’s flawed, but it seems kind of short-sighted to discourage the smart IR major who wants to learn Mandarin. (By the way, Economics and International Relations, especially at the graduate level, are very much math intensive.)

  10. BJ, Roger- Go back and re-read my full post

    ” I think the more we push our comfort zones while young, and really drive to understand those topics that we may not enjoy, the more we will be agile and capable thinkers when we have bigger responsibilities and more stuff on our collars.”

    I am explicitly endorsing the fact that Humanities folks could and should succeed in STEM fields but with the particular nature of the work involved on ship, the burden of proof would lay with the squishy folks-hence why I think the Navy is probably correct in mandating a majority of their officer accessions have a STEM background.

    I certainly think that STEM folks must think strategically and be required to take humanities courses that provide them the ability to write and speak broadly. My experience has been that engineers are much more capable of writing a point paper than English majors are of understanding how a steam system works (or whatever does not involve more left brained thinking).

    Now, I am at a disadvantage in this conversation as I am not a Naval Officer, but a Marine Officer. My retort is that the classes that I took at Kings Point which best prepared to be a Marine were not history or ethics or leadership- they were a systems engineering course and a navigation law course. They were tough, I sucked at them, and I had to work hard. I had to have an answer to the problem at hand, and not a well thought response that conceded the fact “there was no right nor wrong”. Did any of the material directly apply to being a junior Marine Officer-not at all. But in learning that I would have to work hard at things that were not easy, I gained a much better knowledge of how to problem solve than I did from any humanities course. My favorite courses, and those that I performed the best at, were the humanities courses.

    My point is that all the humanities folks will self select and learn those great themes of history and how to craft the perfect flow of written word. They will not choose to learn the scientific method, deductive reasoning, or the spatial problem solving that comes from packing a steam valve (or what the hell a steam valve is). That is why the next Mahan or Shakespeare who wants to wear a Naval uniform should have to focus on the STEM stuff, even if just for a few years of their early education- they will already have the chops to think and write using their right brain. Equally, if the next Rickover wants to serve, they should spend some time with Thucydides and not just working out the atomic weight of a quark (or whatever, I am sure a better engineer will correct me)

  11. Let’s view the issue from a different aspect. What about the commanding officers? What’s a CO’s responsibility to develop people, STEM or not? Let’s say that you’re a CO and one-two-three-many nugget junior officers show up. Now what? What’s your JO training program? You’ve got a ship or squadron to run, and certain open slots on the roster. You have to rotate the newbies through a training-development cycle over the next two or three years. Along the way, you get graded, in part, on how people progress to warfare quals and contribution to overall mission readiness. Plus, while you’re developing JO personnel, you’ve got to think ahead to your own change of command — because you don’t want your XO or future CO to curse your memory, and mention your dereliction to some admiral during cocktail hour at the next Dining-In. So as CO, do you begin by teling the JOs to study NATOPS and read Bowditch? (Umm… actually, yes.) And then what? Task the Chiefs to train the JOs? (Yes, if you’re smart.) Task the physics major from UCal-Berkely ROTC to help the history major from some tier III state college who showed up via OCS? (Yes to that, too.) As the CO, your ship or squadron is what you make it. All the STEM majors in the world won’t save a CO who can’t get everyone pulling their respective oars together.

  12. Chris, the points you make in response are correct, no doubt. And I think I find less fault with the USMC’s stance on education than the Navy’s, but that’s a subject for a separate post.

    The point is that the next super-squishy Mahan-ite (BJ???) already HAS been required to establish a level of STEM immersion. Speaking strictly from the USNA perspective, graduates get a Bachelor’s of Science degree and are required to spend a substantial portion of their credit hours on STEM courses–even the special kids majoring in poli sci.

    To touch on Mark’s point: why, then, if that requirement already exists in each midshipman’s education, should a place like USNA require such an immense (65% or 85%, depending on where you read) percentage of their grads to further major in a STEM field? Especially if we can train enlisted sailors–without technical college degrees–to operate the complex machinery we use?

    This focus on STEM comes at a cost, of course, which is why we are pushing back. It comes at the cost of a moral and professional education–that is where you lose the focus of midshipmen when you tell them that STEM is the end-all-be-all. Naval history, ethics, leadership, seamanship, naval law & warfare–all of these things slowly erode away. And in an era where a lack of some of those qualities are on public display (i.e. COs fired, sexual assaults and impropriety, etc), when do we start making the connection between culture and education?

    STEM is not to blame for the culture problem. But our service needs to return to the study of its roots.

  13. Interesting that the STEM advocates are using either anecdotal information from their personal lives or straw men (the “physics major from UCal-Berkely ROTC” vs “the history major from some tier III state college”) to make their arguments, rather than actual hard data. Bottom line is that there is no proof that an officer corps composed of 85% STEM grads will do the mission better (or worse).

    Roger hits the nail on the head…Navy line accessions are overwhelmingly through the Academy and NROTC, and those midshipmen are already forced to get a BS with lots of science and engineering classes along the way. The actual result of this policy will be that some mids, whose acceptance into an undergrad commissioning program already indicates that the Navy thinks they are (potentially) smart enough to do the job, will be forced to pick a STEM major instead of something that they actually want to do and are interested in. This isn’t necessarily a tragedy, but an officer corps without a diverse academic background is much more likely to fall victim to groupthink. There is nothing wrong with Engineering, and engineering-inspired solutions to all kinds of problems are fine…but they’re not the only solution. No single person or discipline has the right answer or only answer (and often in the real world, there is no such thing as the “right” answer).

  14. Serious question: what problem is the Navy trying to solve with this policy change?

    As Mark points out, there is benefit to an Officer corps with a variety of educational backgrounds an experiences. All our USNA and ROTC midshipmen have to take some amount of Math and Physics for their commissions, so what is the issue?

  15. To your point Mark,
    I clearly pointed out my lack of STEM street cred- I am the last guy you want designing your rocket ship. Therefore, I chose the easy stats from my anecdotal experience.

    I think you are saying that the Navy should not have any minimum percentage of BS or BA degrees-let the kids choose what they want. So clarify-are you ok with a 50/50 split, 60/40 or nothing? Fine anyway, but in an increasingly technical age that is going to be a problem. Nationwide, less than 10 percent of our graduates are engineers (http://www.asee.org/papers-and-publications/publications/college-profiles/2011-profile-engineering-statistics.pdf). The modern higher education system is bankrupt, as we have lowered the bar of what a college degree means. So we have fewer engineers out there, fewer STEM folks, and we want to further dilute the waters in a service that is planning on becoming more technical (Zumwalt, UCAS, Cyber, etc, etc, etc)? Credibility is the ability to put rubber to road, or for the purpose of our, debate code to screen- I worry that a Navy that does not actively seek out those with a technical bent will find its ships driven by eloquent but clueless OODs and its systems run by people who can only accept for truth “what the tech guy said”.

    Its a red herring to say that STEM comes at a cost. I am certain you are not any worse a writer or a thinker because you suffered through Calc and Thermo. I am also certain that you would only be marginally better at best if you could have read all the great lit you wanted and wrote the best dissertation ever on Thermopylae. Point being, you like Humanities, you are good at them, you would have been anyway. School making you focus a little on the hard stuff was probably better in the long run. Additionally, there are some valid criticisms of USNA’s technical education as I have heard that the school has focused much more on its humanities curriculum in the past years than its hard sciences. Educate me, I may be wrong.

    Point to all
    I don’t think that humanities is a horrible pursuit or that english majors mean the death of the Navy. I think our society writ large has dropped the ball in inculcating logical, science type folks and we are seeing the cost play out in the joke that higher education has become. I think it wise for the technical services to keep their focus on those technical aspects early in officer development, but certainly let officers branch out and learn more later on. I also think that Jason’s original post was wonderful, as it pointed out the blowhardy hypocrisy that “STEM guys don’t know how to think strategically”. That refrain, often heard by those of a more liberal arts bent, is just as false as tilting against the windmill of STEM for all. Maybe we find a better balance, but don’t give up the STEM ship and turn the Navy into Dept of State ( I am in grad school right now with a lot of humanities types, and there are a lot of bad ideas that come out of those who formulate plans without any clue as to the technical means and ways through which they are accomplished)

    Well, as I am sure I have pissed off 80% of the people here, I will be exiting this debate.

  16. I do not understand why we have any quota/mandate for degree programs. Whatever happened to the Navy requiring a certain group of courses, regardless of degree program? Several levels of physics and calculus, as I recall… If you were a STEM-type, you already were going to get those courses, and if not, then you got them along the way.

    I disagree with the implication that technical (academic) prowess is more important at the Division Officer level. The Division Officer tours are the most personnel-oriented tours we have, and are largely spent learning the various areas of our trades (some more technical than others). Now, that doesn’t mean that STEM grads are at a disadvantage (assuming they can write), but they are not at an advantage, either. The Department Head level is when the more highly technical portions of our trade become part of daily life – and typically, those that make it (or stay) this far have (in theory) acquired the requisite “technical” knowledge through their qualifications and experience. Again, STEM doesn’t hurt, but nor does it necessarily help.

    Someone made the point that we have highly technically skilled Sailors to do the highly technical work, and officers need to have a more broad background, and must be able to relate to, lead and manage people, not to mention strategically plan and write. You can just as easily make the argument that non-STEM types with certain specific tech training are better suited for being Naval Officers than those that are engineers through-and-through. That said, I think you will continue to find properly motivated (and more satisfied) officers if we let people study what they want to study. If the Navy deems that there are specific areas that they want their future officers to be versed in, then maintain those standards on top of whatever academic programs midshipmen and candidates respectively choose (and those should include more than just Physics and Calculus… maybe composition, cyber, public speaking, and sociology, as well). Our jobs aren’t to be future-Mahans… our jobs are to lead Sailors and maintain and employ the respective weapons systems that we conn or pilot.

    1. Been awhile since I looked at this subject, but as I recall the Nations of the defunct British Commonwealth approach this issue by selecting DECK officers (USA that would be SWO Pilots and SS) with various educational backgrounds including Canoe U types. Specialists in Power Engineering, CIS and INTEL are recruited from hard core STEM backgrounds, and fulfill careers in these and other specialties. Works well IMHO. We have also assigned EDs in Chief Engineers billets on Nuclear Carriers and conventional carriers…..works well and in their career interests.

      A problem we have in spades in NON-STEM sword swingers at the 05 UP level billeted in shore positions (not RTC or USNA ,Virginia ) with exceptionally high technical content…..they are way over their heads, but USN has to assign them somewhere and these are very career enhancing positions….thus the angst in the line…..a English major cannot morph into an engineer…..but we engineers can read volumes of lit on lunch break….we like literature a lot as recreation.

      FYI…..Robert E. Lee , a West Point engineer (built forts, bridges much of his career) was asked to head BOTH NORTH and SOUTH armies in the civil war……IMHO if he had accepted the NORTH the war would have been over in a year……think about it….

      1. MANY of us (a non-scientific number, of course) in the SWO community want to go to the RN model. It makes total sense and would make us BETTER. If we went that route, I would fully support streamlining the accessions process to focus on certain degree areas for certain communities… but we won’t ever go that route, you know, since it makes sense.

        That said, I think you grossly over-state engineers’ literacy. /half-smilie

  17. Have you ever known anyone who dropped out of a history major to switch to Electrical Engineering?

      1. FULLY agree….RN model works well and if still in place EDs are EOs on carriers…..do not know if any Nuclear carriers have ED EOs.

        So we have excellent experience in this arena…..FYI EDs must have a school qualification BEFORE graduate school (subs , surface typically).

        For the typical operator there is just not enough time to master the technical challenges and the sword part. IMHO EDs should be trained to be EOs on nuclear subs also…the sub officer spends about half of his career back aft…..when IMHO he/she : )) needs to focus on the forward part of the boat and war fighting. For a good STEM Nuclear Power School is really a breeze BTW.

        The enlisted folks actually carry the tech burden…..I assume we have USNA history and PE majors in the CICs of our very sophisticated war ships….scary actually. Thus the 85% push.

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