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Ships and schools have more in common than you think

As both a retired naval officer and a semi-retired community college teacher, I’ve often thought about the similarities between ships and schools.  Many are obvious, differing in title but not much in function. Ships have captains, schools have principals; ships have chow halls, schools have cafeterias; ships have brigs; schools have in-school detention. Life on a ship is divided into “watches” while schools have “periods.” Both are regulated by the ringing of bells.


Schools and ships are and have been the poster boys for multiculturalism. On my first destroyer, I shared a berthing compartment with Filipinos, Hispanics, Italians, Irishmen, and a lone Frenchman who was worth his weight in gold on the Cote d’azure. Looking at the roster for my one of my current college classes, I can identify at least four probable national origins; however, and this is important, sociologists note that America is now a “mixed salad” rather than a “melting pot.”

Sailors wear “crackerjacks” (sailor suits) or specific uniforms which are also becoming “de rigeur” in many schools. Ships and schools could not operate without professional staff: the crew and the faculty. Both have a “captive” audience with some who don’t want to be there, although the penalty for being AWOL (Away Without Leave) or Missing Movement from your ship is much more severe than that for skipping school. I could go on with these simple analogies, but let me share some deeper, more existential similarities between the two.


Both are places to learn. Even though I’m a graduate of five universities, I learned just as much onboard the six Navy ships where I spent twenty years of my life. I always sailed with a big bag of books. An eclectic reader, I wasn’t disciplined enough to focus on one subject, so I read about everything. Looking back, I daresay I learned as much “reading before the mast” as I learned in any college classroom.

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