Tonight's JROTC Vote Pits Education Against the Politics of Educators

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Tonight the San Francisco school board prepares to make a momentous decision on the final fate of JROTC in city schools -- in effect deciding whether the political agenda of the district will opt students out. So, it's worth noting that no less a bastion of liberal educational policy than The Chronicle of Higher Education last month offered up an editorial advocating for the return of ROTC programs to universities like Harvard where they have been banned since the 1960s.

This is not, according to the author Donald Downs (a professor of political science, law, and journalism at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and co-director of the Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy), a question of being on the right side of the "culture war" that so concerns the political world. Rather, it's a question of offering students the best education.

Because, according to Downs, having ROTC on campus improves the civic education of both military and non-military students alike.

"Liberal education requires exposing students to the fullest array of worldviews, including the military mind and conservative realism," Downs writes. Ignoring important points of view just because you disagree with them isn't "education" -- it's "dogma."

Assuming that San Francisco schools are in fact more concerned with education than with politics (a pretty big "if," I'll grant you), it's worth asking whether that rationale applies to our JROTC program as well.

Downs' essential point: that knowledge of the military is crucial to civic education because -- like it or not -- the military is real, the government decides when and whether to use it, and students ought to understand how all that works, is a bullseye for San Francisco.

The efforts by the San Francisco school board to banish JROTC have been a clear proxy for efforts to get rid of the military -- little different from Code Pink protesting outside of the Berkeley Marines recruitment post, except that the school district's decision actually has consequences.

A subhead in the San Francisco Bay Guardian put the point directly: "We'd much rather see local kids encouraged to become cops than directed into the military." The issue is not whether the quality of education that JROTC provides is up to snuff; the issue is that the military is BAD.

This is a legitimate argument to make in the public square -- but to the extent that public schools ought to be focused on teaching about the world we have, rather than the world some activists want, it shouldn't dictate educational policy. The military is undeniably real, and familiarity with it, its history, and first-hand experience with people affiliated with it, makes for more educated citizens.

We have a military; we have nuclear weapons; we need citizens who are able to think intelligently about military issues -- including the abuse of power -- instead of pedantic drones whose only intellectual recourse when military matters comes up is to put their hands over their ears and say "You don't exist for me!"

"(S)tudying the ethics and obligations of war," Downs writes, "concentrates thought about the moral complexities of citizenship in a liberal democracy." That's what we want, right?

By all means, let students debate war and peace and the use and abuse of military power -- but let it be a debate ... which is educational ... rather than a rally, which is not. The school district makes the argument all the time that exposure to diversity -- to people of other cultures -- is an invaluable educational tool. That applies here, too. Students who have access to JROTC and JROTC members ... whether they agree with them or not ... have access to different perspectives that have consequences in the real world, and therefore have access to a better education.

On the other hand, attempts by opponents of JROTC to cast their political advocacy as an educational issue are laughable: To write off the program because it is run by non-state-certified PE teachers is to ignore the question of whether students are benefiting from it as much or more than they are from the classes taught by certified teachers. Anecdotally, at least, they appear to be. I challenge anyone, anywhere, to show a link between state certification and the educational quality of PE teachers. Go for it.

Of course, it is true that JROTC doesn't meet "state standards" for PE. The trouble is, those standards (as I've documented before) are ludicrous.

They include items like: "Identify and evaluate personal psychological responses to physical activity"; and "Recognize the value of physical activity in understanding multiculturalism." I am not making this up.

A compelling case can be made that the very best PE classes would be ones that ignore the state standards entirely and focus on the students in front of them. JROTC might or might not "evaluate personal psychological responses to physical activity," but it clearly has a strongly beneficial impact on most of the students in it. I doubt "official" PE classes can say the same.

But that's the point: The only way you can dismiss JROTC on the grounds of educational policy is if you studiously ignore what is actually going on in the classroom, with actual students, and focus entirely on bureaucratic issues.

Which is what's happening.

I don't wish that upon any students in our public schools. I'm amazed the progressive activists who oppose JROTC do.

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