For educators, a charge on this Veterans Day

Today is Veterans Day, a holiday created to commemorate the end of World War I.  I have many things to say about this (the enormous importance of WWI, the ignored majority of that conflict, the role of civilians, etc), but will confine myself to one single point right now:

Educators, remember that a growing number of your students are veterans.

I rarely hear this discussed in American higher education, which is a criminal lapse.  It should be obvious, given that the United States has been fighting a series of wars at a planetary scale since September 2001.  That’s the longest war this country has ever fought – and a fact we barely discuss.

Why isn’t this fact more important to academia?  I think the professional and volunteer nature of the military plays a role.  Unlike a draft, which by design draws broadly on society, a volunteer force tends to stem from local traditions, family history, regional cultures, and other unevenly distributed drivers.

You can get a sense of this by looking at the geography of military service.  Generally, they don’t start from the northeast, that center of campuses and opinion-making.  Instead, America’s soldiers often some from the deep South and Appalachia:

"State-by-state enlistment rates, grouped into regional subsets."

“State-by-state enlistment rates, grouped into regional subsets.”

Not the regions which drive discussion in general, or within academia in particular.

Another reason is the way two successive presidents have shaped what the Pentagon calls the Global War On Terrorism.  Neither Bush(2) nor Obama have mobilized the nation into a massive, WWI or WWII-style posture.  Instead, as I said above, it’s a professionals’ war, and one sometimes fought with powerful technologies at a distance.

I saw this image years ago, and it haunts me:

“America is not at war. The Marine Corps is at war; America is at the mall.”

America is not at war.
The Marine Corps is at war;
America is at the mall.

That’s a terrible sense of separation.  Yes, veterans have always returned to their societies with a powerful, sometimes irreversible sense of estrangement (check the extraordinary Achilles in Vietnam for a start).  But this current war, the global war on terror, seems to take this to a higher level.

Think about it.  A portion of the undergraduate and graduate student body have lived through war in a distancing, traumatizing way, and are now seeking classes in an academia that hasn’t prepared for this sort of thing in a generation or more.  How many campuses, how many academics take this seriously?

Some academics pay careful attention to this.  Here’s a Military Times list of “Best for Vets: Colleges 2015“.  Check who triumphs there: the University of Nebraska Omaha, the University of Maryland University College, Nebraska’s Central Community College .  Bravo to them!  But how often do we read of those schools in the Chronicle, or hear them discussed at conferences, or see them referenced in the academic social media realm?  For more along these lines, search for best colleges for veterans.  Notice how many online institutions lead the results.

What are they doing right, that other schools can learn from?

More: how can we discuss this more openly, and provide a better tertiary education experience for veterans?

This topic isn’t going away.  While president Obama wound down one war (Iraq) and might finish the US role in Afghanistan, forces are still arrayed around the world.  Those forces, those people, have lifetimes ahead of us.  If “lifelong learning” means a damn to we educators, there’s a multi-generation charge ahead of us right there.  The veteran is going to be a campus presence for decades to come.

Over on Facebook I have been posting selected World War I poems, each of which I’ve taught and find devastatingly powerful.  I won’t repeat them here, but you can follow these links for a sampler.

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2 Responses to For educators, a charge on this Veterans Day

  1. Joe Murphy says:

    I shared this on Facebook, and got an intriguing response from a friend. Might some of the reluctance to talk about students in the military be connected to faculty members’ experiences in the anti-war movement of the ’60s and ’70s (and, I add, ’80s)? Some of this may still reflect a principled stand about the military, though it also might reflect a pragmatic stance about avoiding potential controversy.

    That’s a potential explanation, not an excuse, of course.

  2. Pingback: Trends to watch in 2016: education contexts | Bryan Alexander

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