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Naval Academy discovers 'culture'

This summer at the United States Naval Academy, a small battle has been won in a larger campaign that might be termed a culture war.

Last month, the Naval Academy department then known as Department of Language Studies quietly changed its name to Department of Language and Cultures.

It hardly registers as big news. But to Clementine Fujimura, the lone anthropology professor at the Annapolis campus, the change is "huge."

Why? "Because it's acknowledging that the Navy is accepting that we need to be teaching about culture," she said.

By tradition, the Naval Academy is an engineering school. Anthropology, the study of humanity, was hardly recognized, alloted just one full-time faculty position, where other universities devote entire departments to the field.

Lately, though, the military and its service academies have taken a new interest in cultural study, as with the 2005 founding of the Marine Corps Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning.

(Mission: to train Marines who are "globally prepared, regionally focused -- fully capable of effectively navigating the cultural complexities of the 21st century operating environments in support of assigned missions and requirements.")

Naval Academy officials didn't reply to a request for corroboration and comment on Fujimura's account. Mind you, she contacted me mostly to celebrate the new department and the newly hip status of her profession on the Yard.

Fujimura came to the Naval Academy in 1993. Early on, she taught a quasi-anthropology course called Psychology of World Cultures. At the time, she said, anthropology was not yet an accepted subject in Annapolis, while psychology was allowable, "barely."

Within her discipline, the fact that the Naval Academy had but one anthropologist and little demonstrated interest in the subject was both a good and a bad thing. On the one hand, the more anthropologists the better; on the other, anthropologists have ever been wary of the use to which their profession might be put by the military, whose purpose, of course, goes far beyond the passive study of other cultures.

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By the early 2000s, Fujimura was allowed to introduce a course called Cultural Anthropology for Military Application at the academy, but only as an experiment, awaiting formal approval.

"I had to show that there was a practical application side," because theory alone was still not sufficient justification for the course.

Then, a series of directives and reports from the Chief of Naval Operations put cultural awareness on the map, prompting growing acceptance at the academy.

Fujimura is still the only anthropologist on campus, but now she has a permanent mandate to teach the subject. This, she says, is a good thing.

"It helps erase stereotypes we hold about other societies. It creates better leaders."

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By Daniel de Vise  |  July 15, 2010; 10:00 AM ET
Categories:  Administration , Liberal Arts , Pedagogy  | Tags: Clementine Fujimura anthropology, Naval Academy anthropology, Naval Academy culture, USNA anthropology, USNA culture  
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