Friday, May 13, 2011

Encouraging students to join the military

When I started teaching at VMI in 1995 only about one third of our graduates went into the military, and fewer than 10% made a career of it. Today more than half serve after graduation (or, in some cases, before that), perhaps because they believe that their country needs them and perhaps because the economy reduces their other options. Perhaps it's some combination of the two in some cases. But certainly many of my students go into the military and many do so believing that it is the right thing to do. I don't think I should try to change their minds about this, but I'm not sure that I should actively encourage them to go off and, most likely, fight. This article suggests otherwise.

Jonathan Hillman, the author, writes:
Universities already embrace national service programs like Teach for America, encouraging students to apply and reporting with special pride the numbers of their alumni in such programs. They should do the same with military service. 
VMI does encourage its students to embrace military service, but the ethics of doing so are not clear to me. Not because I'm anti-military (I'm not), but because of what it might mean for the students. I used to teach a course on military ethics (I stopped because it proved relatively unpopular, not because I thought it was a bad course) and one of my students went off after taking it (I don't know whether there was a causal relationship or not) to help keep the peace in the former Yugoslavia. Good for him!, I thought (and still think). But when he came back he showed me his photograph album, including pictures of the minefield he was nearly driven into by mistake. That's when it hit me that I might have encouraged him to risk his life, and I was not at all sure that I had any business doing that.  

Another questionable passage is this:
 When possible, faculty should collaborate with ROTC instructors. Imagine how an East Asian politics class might benefit from the experience of a naval officer who has been deployed throughout the region. Knowing only about the military as a fighting force, many students will be surprised by the intellectual firepower wielded by America’s men and women in uniform. 
The key word in the second sentence there is "might." There's a reason why the Navy brings politics professors in to brief its officers and why politics professors rarely return the favor. The classroom is an academic place, and the Navy isn't. I don't mean this as a slam. Naval officers have a job to do and is not an academic job. Might some be able to teach students something that a professor couldn't? Of course. Are many of them likely to be able to do this? I doubt it. A friend of mine who was in the US Navy for a few years said she rarely left the ship. My next door neighbor had a career in the Navy. I doubt he learned much about East Asian politics on his submarine. As for the intellectual firepower of men and women in uniform, well, I've had veterans in my classes, including this past semester. They are no dummies, that's for sure. But they aren't geniuses either. Their intellectual firepower is exactly what you might expect, unless you have some prejudice according to which everyone in the military is a numbskull.

If you want the academic elite to consider joining the military then you should be happy that so many of them go to the famous military academies, e.g. West Point and the Naval Academy. Some go to VMI. But I'm not convinced that other universities should be doing more to push people toward the military who don't want to go of their own accord.


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