Dickinson looks to infuse liberal education into military training -- and to get similar colleges to build ties to the armed forces.
March 29, 2011

A graduate of Dickinson College serving as an infantry platoon recently leader praised -- of all things -- his liberal arts education for helping his unit make military gains in the Kandahar province of Afghanistan.

One day, as he recounted in an e-mail that he sent to Dickinson President William G. Durden, the graduate, who was commissioned through Dickinson’s Reserve Officers Training Corps and majored in Middle Eastern history, found himself sharing small talk with five village elders. After he recited the first chapter of the Koran (which he learned as part of a class assignment), the first lieutenant earned the men’s trust, he wrote to Durden.

Soon after, one of the men handed over five small papers which appeared to be “night letters,” or notes left by the Taliban on local mosques or the doors of homes. Typically, such letters urge resistance or threaten violence to those who cooperate with American forces. These, however, were asking for help. “The three letters this man gave to me thus signaled a major shift in Taliban morale in our area of operations, and at the end of the day became very valuable intelligence information,” the unnamed lieutenant wrote.

This episode -- which demonstrates how core liberal arts subjects, such as foreign language, cultural studies and history can yield better-trained, more culturally sophisticated soldiers and officers -- illustrates the kind of thing that Dickinson’s administration and military analysts want to see happening more often. And, by ensuring that future military leaders learn on campus alongside more typical students, higher education and military officials hope to start bridging the divide that separates servicemen and -women from the rest of society.

On Monday, the college announced that Dickinson had received $100,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to organize forums (one next month and another in the fall) that will help liberal arts colleges collaborate with neighboring military institutions of higher education. The forums will draw upon and look to strengthen several existing relationships between neighboring institutions: Dickinson and the nearby U.S. Army War College; Bard, Union and Vassar colleges and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point; St. John’s College and the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.; and Colorado College and the U.S. Air Force Academy.

While the number of paired-up institutions is small, college officials hope that the example of their postsecondary and military partnerships will create a wider impact among other colleges. “It sends a message,” said Neil Weissman, provost and dean of Dickinson. “Two sectors of higher education can, and in fact must, collaborate.”

Dickinson is looking to tighten ties between higher education and the military in other respects. College officials recently submitted a proposal (where the e-mail account of the first lieutenant appeared) to the U.S. Army to beef up its existing ROTC curriculum to include four years of foreign language, cultural immersion, a semester or year’s worth of study abroad among civilians, and a concentration in global security studies. Upon graduation, students would receive a commission with a “certification in global preparedness,” Dickinson officials hope. These requirements, all of which would be supervised by Dickinson faculty, would come on top of the standard ROTC curriculum, which is supervised by military personnel.

Durden said that if the proposal is accepted by the Army, he wants to help other colleges adopt more rigorous standards for their ROTC programs. A graduate of Dickinson’s ROTC program in 1971, Durden said traditional military education has erred by training most young officers chiefly in operations and tactics. “It’s very critical for the military to somehow reevaluate this and give some of the junior officers an opportunity to think in a more complex manner,” said Durden, adding that junior officers are increasingly being thrust into highly complex situations. “We have young lieutenants running cities.”

Military analysts lately have been touting the virtues of a liberal arts education at all levels of the armed forces. “We want lieutenants to be critical thinkers,” said Bill Johnsen, dean of the U.S. Army War College, who added that these skills were particularly important to impart to the war college’s students, who tend to be decades into their careers and occupy senior posts. Most of these students are on the brink of taking jobs in which they will serve as policy advisers and provide counsel on highly ambiguous issues, and in which they will have to persuade rather than command. “They need to get used to the give and take,” Johnsen said.

Durden argues that training in flexible thinking needs to be extended down the chain of command. This argument mirrors the one used by advocates for the liberal arts in higher education more generally: exposure to the liberal arts ought not to be restricted to the elites, but also provided to lower level officers (or entry-level workers, in the more general sense) so that they can adapt to complex and even unforeseeable situations.

“America arguably relies on its armed forces to perform a wider variety of functions than any other nation in history,” wrote the authors of "Keeping the Edge: Revitalizing America's Military Officer Corps," which was published by the Center for a New American Security. That paper, which Durden cited as greatly influencing the two initiatives at Dickinson, lays out the argument that a broad liberal arts education ought to be the foundation for future officers in the military. “In addition to demonstrating a high degree of proficiency in conventional state-on-state warfare,” the authors continued, “officers must also develop a broader skill set in politics, economics, and the use of information in modern warfare to cope with a more complicated and rapidly evolving international environment.”

But the melding of military objectives to educational pursuits is deeply discomfiting to some in academe. For example, the American Anthropological Association determined that the Human Terrain System, which embeds social scientists with U.S. Army or Marine combat units to collect ethnographic data, does not meet the discipline's ethical standards. “Where data collection occurs in the context of war, integrated into the goals of counterinsurgency, and in a potentially coercive environment,” the association’s report reads, “it can no longer be considered a legitimate professional exercise of anthropology.”

And, while Harvard University has announced the impending return of the Naval ROTC to its campus, incidents at other campuses -- such as Columbia University -- have fed the perception that the cultures of the military (with its emphasis on obedience to the chain of command) and higher education (which prizes questioning, debate and argument) are so different as to be incompatible to each other.

But this apparent chasm is one of the biggest reasons to bring the military and higher education into closer contact, said Dickinson officials. The true risk, said Weissman, isn’t that military imperatives will co-opt educational ones. “It’s the divorce and separation of the American military from democratic society,” he said.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made the same argument. “It is also true, however, that whatever their fond sentiments for men and women in uniform, for most Americans the wars remain an abstraction. A distant and unpleasant series of news items that does not affect them personally,” Gates said at Duke University in 2010. “For a growing number of Americans, service in the military, no matter how laudable, has become something for other people to do.”

To underscore the sense of disassociation, Gates said that the percentage of 18-year-olds with a veteran parent had dropped from 40 percent in 1988 to 18 percent in 2000 -- and is projected to fall below 10 percent in the future.

Some observers hope that efforts like the ones being launched by Dickinson will help to reduce that separation. “I think this is a terrific development,” Cheryl Miller, program manager for American citizenship at the American Enterprise Institute, said in an e-mail, and noted changes on campus to better integrate and serve veterans as other positive steps. “There’s really been a sea change in university attitudes toward the military, particularly since 9/11.”

But some in higher education said that it is not always the case that aspiring military cadets and liberal arts students are at loggerheads. Even at Bard College, there is more accord than discord, said Jonathan Becker, Bard's vice president for international affairs and civic engagement. For the past six years, Bard and West Point have shared what Becker called an “odd-couple relationship,” in which students sometimes attend classes at each other’s institutions, faculty travel to deliver guest lectures, and students and professors from both colleges mix sides to debate political issues. “What we have found is that the clichés about our respective student bodies don’t always hold,” he said. “Twenty-year-olds enjoy meeting and learning with other 20-year-olds.”


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