Classes aboard ship give sailors and Marines a fresh perspective

By Hrvoje Hranjski

Associated Press

ABOARD THE USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT – After long hours fixing airframes on F/A-18C Hornets bombing Afghanistan, Marine Cpl. Scott Gordon has just enough energy left to wash the grease off his arms and take his seat in a class now discussing Alexander Hamilton, an American statesman in the 18th century.

The college classes that Gordon and 125 other sailors and Marines are taking aboard the aircraft carrier could not have come at a busier time. But his two-month course on U.S. diplomatic history was oversubscribed when it started at the beginning of November.

“The class has been an eye-opener. I hardly have time for a bowl of cereal, but I know it will put me ahead, whether I stay or leave to go to college,” said Gordon, 25, of Madison, Wis.

Professor Jeff Gardner, one of four Navy-contracted civilian instructors aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, does everything he can to make up for the fact that the carrier in the Arabian Sea has no library, no Internet access and no audiovisual gadgets.

Mostly he talks, trying to keep his audience awake and responding during a class that meets from 1 o’clock to 3 o’clock – in the morning.

“If the students are not interested in what the current situation is, it’s because they don’t know what questions to ask. They are very comfortable with the company line,” said Gardner, 44, of Las Cruces, N.M. “If that’s what the government said happened, that’s what happened. If the Taliban are bad, the Taliban are bad.”

But he added, “When they start asking questions, that’s where they do jump in. Then they are awake and they go, ‘Hey, OK, I never thought of it that way before.’ “

Lecturing aboard Navy ships for the last seven years, civilian instructors have been free to tailor their programs without government interference, Gardner said. He is unlikely to be accused of toeing the company line.

“American foreign policy is about self-interest and power, not ethics. It’s good to be selfish,” he told a baffled class. “Why are we interested in Uzbekistan or Tajikistan? Because of oil – not because we like them.”

Master Chief Kenneth Reed, who is in charge of the classes, suggested they expose students to a different perspective and a change from the military atmosphere in which the last thing they are expected to do is question authority.

“Everybody has an opinion and is entitled to an opinion,” he said. “But I don’t think most people are comfortable with speaking their opinion” in the armed forces.

“We get them to think in a different way that’s not the right way to think, but they have experience and exposure to thinking from a different temple,” said Reed, 44, of Fall River, Mass. “Diplomatic history is a class where rules are different from our day-to-day lives.”

There are also classes in math, English, criminal justice, psychology, psychiatry and speech. Depending on what the students are majoring in, students can earn credits for further studies.

For Gardner, who has been jumping from one ship to another for four years, teaching sailors and Marines is a way of giving something back.

“When I was their age, I joined the Navy and I took my first college class aboard the ship,” he said. “I took every class that I could and it was wonderful, and then I went to college and got back and said, ‘I’d be happy to do the same for them.’ “

Copyright ©2001 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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