A Liberal-Arts Home for the Military

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

February 25, 2013

Four decades ago, I participated in ROTC at Dickinson College and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. I also had the distinct privilege of going through basic training with one of the first cohorts of women to engage side by side with men in combat simulation.

I didn't think my military service was all that unconventional, and not until I assumed the presidency at Dickinson, in 1999, did it strike me as unusual. I would look around at my peers, and rarely did I see any who had military service in their backgrounds. At first glance, that's not so alarming. There are many ways to serve, and the military is but one—an important one, but not the only one.

While it may be unreasonable to expect the majority of college and university presidents to have served in uniform, the higher-education community itself should be held accountable for ensuring that anyone who leads an institution thought to be part of an indispensable bulwark of democracy understands the vital role of the military in society and finds opportunities to help students gain that knowledge.

This mandate is even more crucial with the announcement last month that women will now be eligible for combat-arms deployment. More than half of American college students are women, and yet only 20 percent of the 20,000 students enrolled in Army ROTC programs are women. Presidents can now inspire and encourage women to consider yet another opportunity for service, leadership, and advancement from which they were previously excluded.

Today's college student knows very little about the military. Both men and women have little understanding of the reality and consequence of combat. With only 1 percent of Americans in the armed forces, most college students will never serve, and they may not have a relative who has served. Those students will come to believe that the nation's military engagements and wars exist as distant tasks for others.

What can we do about this?

Dickinson, with a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, has worked to build on opportunities for cooperation between liberal arts colleges and neighboring military-education institutions. We have seen the benefits of these collaborations in joint classes and cross-institutional visits by students and faculty. Colorado College and the U.S. Air Force Academy, for example, offered a joint course, "The Physics and Meaning of Flight," and Vassar College and the U.S. Military Academy organized a discussion for their students on "Military Academies and the Liberal Arts."

Other colleges might consider adding or re-establishing ROTC programs on their campuses. Having such an organization in proximity permits me to discuss with these young men and women their military commitment and what it means to them in the context of undergraduate studies.

They educate me about commitment, time management, wellness, idealism, and connection, at a young age, to something larger than themselves. And when I visit some of our young graduates at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center who have served and been severely wounded, I am brought into an emotional dimension of my profession that offers a distinctive connection to the sacrifice of those who are our students.

The Constitution decrees civilian leadership of the military a necessity for a liberal democracy. The founding fathers believed that citizens who know a great deal about the military also understand their responsibility to oversee and control its actions. They also recognized that a nation whose success depends upon an engaged and informed populace demands an education far different from the isolated model that was prevalent throughout 18th-century Europe, and upon which America's colonial, theologically oriented colleges and universities had been modeled.

They advocated instead an education that easily traversed the boundaries between the classroom and the community, where the lessons of the academy could be applied immediately to society. This education was to prepare leaders who would shape the economy, government, and social structures of the young democracy.

That's why the lack of understanding of the military in higher education is so troubling. If we as educators, with access to millions of young people, aren't encouraging these discussions, who will? We are responsible for helping to develop the next generation of citizen leaders who will oversee the military and who, without our support, may have no preparation for this responsibility.

If we are to remain a democratic republic, fulfill the American educational mission, and honor what our veterans have fought to preserve, we must reacquaint academic America with the military. We must be certain that those who will become our civilian leaders are educated and equipped to participate equally in the conversation and the relationship with those who serve.

William G. Durden is president of Dickinson College and a 1971 graduate of the Army ROTC.