31 October 2009

The ROTC Dilemma ~ Hand Wringing in the Ivy League

Today in The New York Times there is a long article about the travails of students at elite universities who opt to join ROTC. The story focuses on the burdens that such students face as they are compelled to travel to (sometimes quite distant) locations to perform their duties because, by University policy, there is no ROTC on their home campuses.

I have had a series of students in ROTC here at Rochester - Rachel Boylan and Stacy Allen come to mind immediately* - who are as smart and committed and enthusiastic and talented as any students I have had. I respect these young men and women and (as I told Stacy this past week when she was back to campus after a tour in Afghanistan) I worry about them. And even though UofR offers ROTC, I regret that the students who enroll in it confront such a limited range of options. My concern, though, is not quite the same as the ones that the article in The Times lays out.

The basic problem is that all smart, committed, enthusiastic young men and women face a restricted range of options when it comes to what we might call civic engagement. In the first place, virtually the only way that such students can connect with something larger then themselves is to join the military. (I set aside the more banal paths of joining a fraternity/sorority or playing an intercollegiate sport.) What if such students could engage in national service that contributed to the construction of community and public life here at home? What if such students could do the same abroad in organizations (without the taint of the CIA) like the Peace Corps? Those options are unavailable to undergraduates. They are stuck (and I do not want to demean their endeavors) engaging in charity or volunteer work as an extra-curricular activity or internship. My students simply do not have the options, the choices, that would make such career paths meaningful. Training programs in college and a more or less lengthy stint of service afterwards ~ sounds like a great program to me. I bet there would be lots of takers.

In the second place, such students - smart, committed, eager, curious - face real financial hardships. Their options are restricted here too. Virtually the only way to avoid significant, burdensome loans is to join the military - ROTC or National Guard. Here the ROTC students look pretty well-off. Compare the $40K scholarships that ROTC students get at elite universities with the median income for a family of four in the United States. Compare the difficulties that ROTC students confront to those that other students who endure difficulties as they try to work their way through college or who make ends meet by, say, joining the National Guard. Compare any military pay/benefits package with patching together part-time, low wage, no benefits jobs in any other sector.

Finally, none of this should gloss over the fact that the military is - by its nature - an authoritarian, entirely in-egalitarian enterprise. (The problem with ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is merely one symptom of that authoritarian character.) Neither should it gloss over the fact that many students in ROTC will go off to fight and perhaps die in wars (or ‘conflicts’ that the sitting administration cannot, in any given case, bring itself to declare a war) that at best are extremely difficult to justify. If we want college to train students to be active, creative democratic citizens, it is not at all clear that military service is the most conducive path on which to set them.

If we are concerned about choice and opportunity, let’s have options with which military service might have to compete, options that might allow students to engage the larger world and get paid to do so. I respect the students who sign up for ROTC. I would respect students who signed up for non-military national service too. I think both should get the same benefits for the same commitment.
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* Both Rachel and Stacy invited me to the induction ceremonies where they received their commissions into the Marine Corps. These are held in conjunction with graduation. I attended both and was honored to do so. It was truly amazing for me to be able to glimpse the families of the ROTC Cadets (often multiple generations of service men and women). When I say that I respect these students I mean it.

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