Frank Schaeffer

Ivies and military could learn a lot from each other

By Frank Schaeffer
April 9, 2009
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LAST WEEKEND about 100 people gathered at the Harvard Divinity School for a conference called "Ivies and the Military - Toward Reconciliation." Its focus was on how elite educational institutions discourage students from considering military service, resulting in bad blood between the Ivies and the military.

I was one of the panelists because my son John and I wrote a book called "Keeping Faith - A Father-Son Story About Love and the United States Marine Corps" in 2002. My section expressed the perspective of a liberal father shocked by his son unexpectedly joining the Marines right out of a swanky private high school. (I never served, and live on the North Shore in a higher-education-worshiping, the-military-is-beneath-us enclave.) After my son joined in 1999 and went to war after 9/11, I changed my snobbish anti-military attitude.

Other panelists included military leaders, professors and students from the Harvard Divinity School and various theological institutions, and several representatives of the gay community. We were progressives, conservatives, and moderates, yet we all agreed on one thing: It is past time for elite universities to reconsider their anti-military bias and restore the Army ROTC (Reserve Officers' Training Corps) to campus.

We also agreed that the military is partly at fault for the military/Ivy divide. The military has more or less given up on the Ivies because restoring ROTC programs there would be expensive, not to mention the aggravation of being on campuses where the faculty considers military service beneath its students.

Yet, the military needs highly educated leaders in this complex interconnected world. And the top schools need an infusion of selfless morality.

The lesson the Ivy League teaches has become: I am the most important person in any room. The lesson the US military teaches: the person standing next to me is more important than I am.

Noticeably absent from the conference was a representative from Harvard's administration. Perhaps the university declined to send a representative because it did not want to be reminded that while tens of thousands of bright, young Americans have been volunteering in the services, the Ivy League schools have mostly produced a nonserving generation of bankers, hedge fund managers, etc. who are helping destroy our economy.

The alumni of enlisted Marines, soldiers, airmen, and sailors is not where you find the "geniuses" who ran outfits like AIG into the ground, then took bonuses of taxpayer money. The people who did that were produced mostly by Ivy League institutions that have taken a morally lazy approach to education. Their admission policy seems to admit mostly "winners" who will make useful alumni as the years go by. "Useful" is defined as earning the most money and/or academic prestige, not service - unlike, say, the Marine Corps, which has enough self-confidence in its training methods to believe that it can take just about any American and turn him into a good Marine.

As we are winding up the misbegotten Iraq war and concentrating on prosecuting a just war in Afghanistan, as we close Guantánamo Bay, President Barack Obama is asking all Americans to step up and serve - be that in the Peace Corps, Teach for America, or the United States military. What will be the Ivy League's excuse for continuing to keep ROTC off-campus?

It is past time that the Ivies are challenged to encourage their students to at least consider serving our country alongside Americans of all creeds, economic classes, and races. A more level national service playing field would be good for the country and good for the privileged few who will be our next generation of leaders. It would not hurt our future leaders to work side-by-side with Americans from all walks of life. Military service entails sacrifice, but it is also the best opportunity most privileged Americans will ever have for the sort of character development that leads to people wanting to help our country, rather than just striving to profit from it.

Frank Schaeffer is a writer and co-author of "Keeping Faith-A Father-Son Story About Love and the United States Marine Corps."

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