A Modest Proposal on the Draft and Higher Education

Edward F. Palm offers an idea for getting more troops to Iraq -- and making Margaret Spellings happy.

December 19, 2006

It is indeed a rare and wonderful thing when the interests of seemingly disparate institutions coalesce and the members thereof can join forces to advance a hitherto unrealized common cause. But such is the opportunity that the officials of the Bush administration and we in the academy find ourselves facing today.

The Department of Defense finds itself desperately short of troops with which to sustain what promises to be a long and increasingly unpopular, inconclusive war in Iraq. The Department of Education finds itself suddenly alarmed by the relatively low percentage of Americans pursuing postsecondary education compared to the rate of participation in other countries. American colleges and universities find themselves bucking the current demographic trend such that some of them are lowering standards as they compete for fewer and fewer students.

The answer to all these problems, it seems to me, is as simple as remembering back to the last time we were fighting an unpopular war far away for reasons we couldn’t quite understand, the 1960s. Colleges and universities were bursting at the seams with more students than they could handle, and the sky seemed to be the limit for the expansion of programs and the hiring of new faculty members. What did we have going for us then in the American academy that we don’t have now? We had a Selective Service System -- a draft -- that until 1971 featured a calculated system of deferments for college and graduate school.

We need to restore that system today -- the most significant refinement being that, in keeping with today’s more enlightened sensibility, today’s draft would extend to young women as well as men. The advantages would be obvious and undeniable.

The Department of Defense would have more than enough fresh troops with which to “stay the course.” This should satisfy the critics on the right and the left who would use the current exhaustion of the all-volunteer military as an excuse to “cut and run.” The number of college deferments would remain relatively low compared to the number of young people available, especially if we made deferment contingent upon maintaining a passing grade-point average. We could even make deferment contingent on enrolling in programs that lend themselves to the kinds of assessment approved of by the Spellings commission -- if those classics and philosophy departments want to hold on to their students, they’ll come around to believe everything can be measured in tests or your post-graduation income.

Patriotic appeals and current threat levels notwithstanding, the prospect of being drawn into a shooting war in Iraq or Afghanistan, or even Iran, will continue to appeal to a limited spectrum of American youth. Matriculation and retention rates in American colleges and universities, then, are likely to soar, thereby alleviating one concern of the Secretary of Education and her Commission. We are also likely to see a war dividend in terms of increased accountability, as students and faculty alike face a clear and present incentive to assess and document student learning. (Obviously, the deferments would only be granted to those enrolled at places whose accreditors endorsed the commission’s approach.)

The sudden surplus of applicants, moreover, will force colleges to become more selective. This will greatly reduce, or even obviate, the need for remedial  courses. And it will help ensure that graduates do not exhibit the sort of deficiencies in basic skills likewise noted as one of our national embarrassments in the Higher Education Commission’s recent report.

Carefully considered, in fact, this scheme would seem to present no serious disadvantages, unless it be urged that the liberal sentiments and ideals associated with higher education are incongruous with the prosecution of a war. To date, however, we have witnessed remarkably little dissent and protest directed toward the war from academic quarters. It is therefore safe to assume that we in the academy have outgrown our narrow principles and that we’re not likely to suffer the sort of paroxysms that tore campuses apart during the Vietnam era.

As for myself, I have nothing to gain or lose in proposing this scheme. I already served in Vietnam, I am within five years of retirement, and my one child is finished with college and beyond draft age. My only objective is to do my part, as a loyal American, to help the President out of a tight spot and to point the way toward a brave new era of academic and governmental cooperation.


Edward F. Palm is dean of social sciences and humanities at Olympic College, in Bremerton, Wash.


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