William Astore: Asking Too Much of Our Troops -- And Not Enough of College Students

Roundup: Historians' Take




[Professor Astore currently teaches History at the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, PA. He writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.]

Like many colleges today, my institution has a program to introduce new students to higher education. What's surprising, perhaps, is how little we take for granted with respect to student maturity and preparation. We don't expect they'll know how to take notes (or even that they're aware they should take notes). We remind them how to behave in a classroom setting (texting, cell phone calls, and similar disruptions are proscribed). Even before they meet obstacles to learning, we alert them to counseling services that are standing by to help, as well as tutoring centers to aid with study and writing skills.

Given rising tuition costs, perhaps students deserve (or, at least they've come to expect) all these helping hands. But I wonder if a hand-holding approach to education is ultimately stunting rather than aiding them. Is all this coaching -- all these support networks -- truly helping students to mature and become responsible, self-motivating adults?

We can shed some light on this by contrasting a student-centered, help-is-on-its-way approach in college to what is expected of young enlistees in the military. The differences are, in a word, striking. After a few months of training (as opposed to years of education), we send eighteen- and nineteen-year-old enlistees overseas and task them with negotiating bewilderingly complex "human terrain" in hostile places like Iraq and Afghanistan. As they operate high-tech equipment worth millions, these "strategic privates" are entrusted to make near-instantaneous, life-or-death decisions under pressure.

Could the contrast be any starker? As we lend helping hands to immature or ill-prepared college students in the most benign of settings, we challenge young troops to make deadly choices in the harshest and most confusing of settings. As we're at pains to remind students to pay attention, to take notes, even to show up for class, we think little about deploying young troops thousands of miles from home to the world's deadliest hotspots, expecting them to behave with discretion, maturity, and valor.

A contrast this stark sets me to thinking. I wonder, for example, how many young adults join the military precisely because they'll be entrusted with responsibility (and firepower) without Mommy, Daddy, and our "Nanny State" hovering over them. Critics may see the military as authoritarian and limiting, yet young recruits may see it as liberating: as building self-reliance and resiliency in a setting free from helicopter parents, feel-good counselors, and similar "mean well" interceders.

Another stark dichotomy is the resources we devote to fostering respect for diversity among new college students versus those devoted to new troops in the same age group. Even as we strive for greater multi-cultural sensitivity and tolerance among students, we simply deploy new enlistees to countries with dramatically different cultures, expecting them to acquire cultural sensitivity on the fly in a process akin to osmosis, if not trial-by-fire. The result is predictable: Young troops, as made evident in this account by Ann Jones, are often oblivious to inappropriate, often counterproductive, behavior.

The paradox is clear: We coddle young college students even as we throw young troops into the breech. To students, we explain difficult concepts in the most basic of English, even as our troops confront the most complex of situations while wrestling with Pashto or Dari. We field a legion of "interpreters" to help students to succeed, yet we still lack language and cultural interpreters to help troops to succeed.

In hand-holding our college students and overloading our troops, we're compromising our educational efforts as well as our military ones.

And whether in school or in war, the result could very well be a failing grade.



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