Mention the floating campus, and most people conjure up visions of a whitewashed luxury ocean liner with an azure pool dominating its main deck. Now picture the aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy, with it's dull gray four-story-high walls, topped off by a 41/2-acre flight deck displaying rows of glistening jets. Hardly the same image.
But, in fact, education and training are among the principal activities on board a ship like the Kennedy. Courses for the ship's 5,300 men, ranging from subjects such as English literature and real estate, to advanced technical training in hydraulics and navigation, take place as the 85,000-ton vessel plies the world's oceans.
The breadth of subjects offered reflects the US Navy's keen awareness not only of the urgent need for highly skilled technicians in an increasingly complex defense system, but also of the military's role in rounding out the personal development of thousands of individuals.
Every year the Department of Defense spends some $13 billion - almost 5 percent of its total budget - on education and training for its 2.18 million men and women. Most of that goes to pay for activities on land. But with many Navy vessels spending a good part of a year away from their home ports (the Kennedy has spent 12 of the past 24 months at sea), it becomes necessary to bring the schooling to where the students are: aboard ship.
Much of an enlisted man's technical training takes place on the job, of course. But many seamen want to take their training further on their own, or to begin working toward a college degree. Others don't read and write well enough to perform basic tasks. Accordingly, the Navy spends more than $20 million annually to provide basic-skills (remedial), technical (vocational), and academic (college) courses on hundreds of ships.
Most of the vocational-technical courses are taught by qualified Navy personnel. But the academic courses are taught by civilians from US colleges under contract with the Navy to provide instructors. Those institutions then provide the transferable credit for all courses successfully completed. Last year the Navy contracted with Central Texas College and City Colleges of Chicago.
When the aircraft carrier Kennedy steamed out of its home port of Norfolk, Va., last year for a seven-month deployment that would include time off the coast of Lebanon, plans had already been laid for classes that would involve more than 1,200 of the carrier's enlisted men and officers.
One of them was Lance Cpl. D. Reed Jr., who is part of a Marine contingent assigned to the Kennedy, and an orderly to the commanding officer.
Corporal Reed joined the Marines right out of high school in 1982, but he plans to attend college once he completes his three-year enlistment. With that in mind, he took an English composition class while on duty at sea.
''We met three times a week for two hours, and I think it did a lot for my writing technique and use of good grammar,'' says Reed. College-credit courses require 48 hours of class time, while the remedial courses call for 45.
Commenting on encouragement he received from superiors to continue his education, Reed adds, ''They really emphasize that you get some education - as long as you can fit it in with your regular duties.''
Tight work schedules, peer pressure to leave personal time free, and lack of space suitable for holding classes are the major factors cited as discouraging greater participation in the elective educational programs. (Money is seldom a factor: With the Navy picking up 75 to 90 percent of tuition costs, depending on the student's rank, out-of-pocket, per-class expenses rarely surpass $50.) Nevertheless, the Navy held more than 1,900 on-board college-credit courses throughout the fleet last year, with nearly 30,000 participants.
The Kennedy's commanding officer (CO), Capt. Gary Wheatley, says he sees on-ship education as ''extremely important'' - both in terms of the ship's preparedness, and for the future of those men who leave the Navy after a typical enlistment.
Of the three types of programs offered, only the functional skills classes are not elective. They result in no college credit but can help the sailor without a high school diploma to achieve an equivalency.
''The CO 'volunteers' the individual who needs skills training in English grammar, composition, reading, or math,'' says J. D. Smith, Navy Campus manager. ''It's on-duty time, and it's for the individual who may or may not have his high school diploma but who doesn't have the basic skills to function properly in a modern Navy.''
High unemployment and the military's improved image have led to what Captain Wheatley terms ''the highest-qualified recruits of my 28 years in the Navy.'' Still, what some Navy officials have called an ''alarming'' number of each year's 80,000-plus recruits lack basic reading, writing, and computing abilities. Dr. Smith estimates that between 6 and 10 percent of on-ship recruits take a functional skills course in any one year.
The elective courses a ship offers depend on the interest shown in a particular topic - and the availability of instructors.
According to William McNaughton, an adjunct professor of English language and literature at City Colleges of Chicago who taught on the Kennedy last year, there is no question that the college-credit courses taught on ship are just as rigorous as those taught at civilian colleges. ''We may miss a week because of the demands of the ship's operation,'' says Dr. McNaughton, ''but that means we double class time the following week.''
Getting college credit, Smith adds, is on the minds of most of those who take the academic courses. As one enlisted man who works the Kennedy's flight deck commented, ''The main reason I joined the Navy was to help me get the money to go to college.''