Section 3: School Aboard the Ship

The headline on the Saint Paul Pioneer Press article read:

Every Battleship a Schoolroom! Every Jack for a Pupil, Under Educational Plan of Secretary Daniels, to Make Navy Place Where Men May Study Trade of Profession While Learning to Fight.

The article went on to describe the educational program recommended by Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, to help sailors avoid “rusting out” or becoming bored with Navy routine. Daniels wanted men who enlisted for a four-year tour of duty to be better men at the end of their enlistment.

Daniels was convinced that educated men would not mutiny (rise up against their officers) nor desert their duty. He hoped that his program would have sailors enlist as laborers and become skilled workers before their discharge. Sailors who refused the training would be stuck in the “mean and dirty jobs” of the ship. Daniels also thought the program would make the Navy more appealing to men looking for a position in life. The teachers were the officers, all highly educated men, most of whom were graduates of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland. The officers of the North Dakota had set aside one hour and fifteen minutes every day for study. Commander Jackson explained the system on January 21, 1914:

All of the officers, except the Captain, commander, and navigator of each vessel, act as instructors in the elementary subjects and in higher mathematics. . . . Thus, on the North Dakota we have thirty-four officers, graduates of Annapolis, to give tuition to the men. All members of the crew, of whatever grade or branch of service, are compelled to take up a course of study. The classes are conducted from 1:15 to 2:30 P.M.

Another officer described how the ship created classrooms:

Of course, this is a battleship and not a schoolhouse, and the work is conducted under some difficulties. When I want a blackboard for example, I send word to the ship’s carpenter, and he meets the requisition by nailing together a few pieces of board, planing them off, and giving the finished product a coat of black paint. Most of the officers have equipped themselves with blackboard 6 by 3 feet in dimension.

This officer assigned his students to write essays about why they enlisted in the Navy. Most of his students were Filipinos, or men from the Phillipines, an Asian nation which was at that time under the rule of the United States. They served as mess (meal) attendants in the ship’s kitchens. Though they had had a good basic education as children in the Philippines, they did not have a strong command of English. In their essays on the topic, Why I Joined the Navy, one student wrote: “I joined navy for reglum rashuns 3times dayly.”  Another stated that he joined to “serve woes of my humans rase.”  In their effort to express themselves in English, they tell of their own struggles (securing three good meals a day) and their desire to make the world a better place by trying, through their naval service, to address the world’s troubles (“woes”).

Other sailors who had a good basic education were able to take more advanced courses. An officer explained:

Such men [who have a good education] are permitted to take up technical studies including electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, stenography, ordnance, higher mathematics, and navigation. The pay officers conduct classes in bookkeeping and in accounting. In addition such trades as plumbing, gas [pipe] fitting, printing, carpentry and mechanics are taught to those men desiring such instruction and who are deemed capable of undertaking such practical courses.

Some of the enlisted men are pursuing courses in recognized correspondence schools, and these are excused from the regular school work and the hour is set aside for them for study purposes. These men receive advice and assistance in their studies from the officers as they require it.

Though the United States has always supported education as the foundation for a healthy democracy, the Navy’s leading battleship was not a democracy and sailors did not study in mixed groups. Chief Petty Officers were educated separately from lower petty officers who might be educated with the enlisted men, depending on their educational level. Discipline and the privileges of rank were maintained by segregation of the students according to rank as well as their educational background.

Why is this important? The education opportunities for sailors on the USS North Dakota provided them with expanded opportunities if they decided to leave the Navy. For the Filipino sailors, the opportunity to improve their English language skills would serve them well throughout their lives, even if they returned to the Phillipines. It is doubtful that many men joined the Navy to get an education. However, because they were required to study something, they had an opportunity they could not have found in any other kind of work.

Sources: St. Paul Pioneer Press 21 September 1913 “Naval Men Dazed by School Rules,” New York Times 22 January 1914