Education Opinion

The General’s Lament

By LeaderTalk Contributor — January 20, 2011 3 min read
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Now I am conflicted.

Usually when some CEO from a dysfunctional industry shares his or her insights on how I can better do my job as an educator, it is easy to dismiss. Is serving in Congress really all the experience you need to become an authority on educating children? Or is running a computer start-up sufficient enough to make one an expert in the nuances of pedagogy? Or is joining the Rotary Club? Or having your own kids? Or coaching a little league team? Or managing a fast food outlet? Is not being an educator really all it takes to know what ails the public education system? Really?

I think educating another human being is far more complex a process than dentistry… but when it comes to root canals I’m more than willing to defer to my dentist, Dr. Disraeli. I have a healthy regard for his expertise.

And yet, for whatever reason, EVERYBODY is an expert on what is wrong with our schools and what we should do to fix them.

So I really was conflicted on Sunday morning when I read an editorial by James Comstock, a retired Army Major General who is the latest non-expert expert to weigh in on how screwed up our schools are. His is a little different take. He wrote:

“A report by the nonprofit Mission: Readiness estimates that 75% of young Americans are not able to join the military and one of the leading reasons is a failure in our education system.”

The Major General cites the current high school drop out rates, the high percentage of physically unfit kids, and the incidence of juvenile crime as deal breakers for individuals who might otherwise want to join the all-volunteer armed forces. And they are. These are the trends that every community must address through a combined effort of public policy, law enforcement, health care, social services, fitness, recreation and business. And yes, education services—from Pre-K to the university.

But not having enough enlisted recruits to slake the military’s thirst for perpetual war is not what keeps me awake at night.

It’s not that I’m unpatriotic or that I don’t appreciate the military service of my father and my two older brothers and the millions of other American veterans. I am. That’s why I am conflicted. I want our students to be academically qualified for West Point (or Stanford)-- not necessarily to enlist in the army. So I did some research about who really does join the armed forces. I was pleasantly surprised. I learned that:

• Members of the all-volunteer military are significantly more likely to come from high-income neighborhoods than from low-income neighborhoods. • Only 11 percent of enlisted recruits in 2007 came from the poorest one-fifth (quintile) of neighborhoods, while 25 percent came from the wealthiest quintile. • American soldiers are more educated than their peers. A little more than 1 percent of enlisted personnel lack a high school degree, compared to 21 percent of men 18–24 years old, and 95 percent of officer accessions have at least a bachelor’s degree. • Contrary to conventional wisdom, minorities are not overrepresented in military service. • Enlisted troops are somewhat more likely to be white or black than their non-military peers. • Whites are proportionately represented in the officer corps, and blacks are overrepresented, but their rate of overrepresentation has declined each year from 2004 to 2007.

So evidently the military is actually meeting its recruiting quotas with quality folks who are drawn—no doubt—from the public school system. We must be doing something right if it is our alumni who are fighting the general’s war.

If you ask me the purpose of public education is in the United States today— or what legacy I might one day leave behind in my leadership of public schools— I honestly would not list feeding the military pipeline as one of my accomplishments. I am not striving to close the achievement gap as a patriotic gesture.

“America’s military strength depends on its young people,” says the Major General. “Encouraging physical fitness in schools and providing children with the quality education they deserve will help insure our national security for years to come.”

It turns out Major General Comstock isn’t the only high-ranking officer who wants schools to do better in the interest of maintaining our military supremecy. Former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Generals Shalikashvili and Shelton stated that “investing in our children through early education is a plain common sense issue critical to our National Security.”


But I’d like to believe-- however naïve it may sound-- that the more advanced and effective our educational system becomes, the more equitable the opportunities we provide for our students, the more just our society, the more civil and fair and moral our nation… the less we would have need for a military at all.

I still sit in awe of the extraordinary courage displayed by Patrick Tillman when he abandoned a multi-million dollar NFL contract to join the Major General’s army for a soldier’s salary. Brilliant. Beautiful. Athletic. Young. Patriotic. The very, very best of America’s youth. Killed by friendly fire and then buried in bureaucratic lies.

I wonder what would the army would do if our public schools produced more children of the quality of Patrick Tillman. Until that is resolved, maybe we strive to prepare children to change the world in their own way, to be all they can be, and manage our own conflicting feelings about patriotism, and the “failures of the public school system”, and the supposed dearth of soldiers qualified to execute a war.

Kevin W. Riley, Ed.D.
El Milagro Weblog

The opinions expressed in LeaderTalk are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.