Military Veterans Bring Value to the Classroom

By Mark Street
Published in The Chronicle of Higher Education,  Spring 2014

I have followed with interest the national conversation about the important role of colleges in easing the transition of military veterans into the classroom. I applaud efforts like the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the Yellow Ribbon program, and a newly formed student-run Armed Forces Group at my own university to help veterans integrate into the academic community and graduate.

But I hope those discussions, focused on assisting the vets and worthy as they are, don’t eclipse the value these students bring to higher education.

Veterans who return and want an education should be helped in any way possible, and that makes sense: It’s good for them, and it offers them greater opportunities in the future, better jobs at better pay with a more sophisticated skill set. But lately I’ve been thinking about how much I appreciate the vets not for what they did in Iraq or Afghanistan or Fort Benning in the past, but for how they enliven my classes right now, day to day. They inject a clarity and immediacy to discussions and debates, and we all profit from their presence.

Recently, a few minutes before my class, “Seminar in Avant-­Garde Film/Video,” was to start, amid the chatter and shuffling of chairs I heard two veterans talking about their travails with the twin bureaucracies of the university and the government: trying to get their book stipends and housing subsidies, pay their bills, and get their degrees. I pretended to look down at my notes, but I was fascinated by their exchange. These were 29- and 46-year-old men who’d served overseas, facing challenges I could only imagine, and they were approaching their new obstacles with good grace and fatalistic humor. Then I looked up and saw that some of the other students in the class were staring at them, straining to understand the chasm between their own experiences and those of the veterans.

I greeted the class and we ­morphed into our prescribed roles, I as teacher, they as students. And then the gulf between the vets and “traditional students” became even greater. I showed one of the renowned filmmaker Stan Brakhage’s abstract movies, a five-minute spectacle of richly colored animated brushstrokes dancing across the screen. A 20-year-old sophomore compared the film to a computer screensaver, and then continued on, her voice rising in anger: “I mean, sure, maybe I could just put a scrawl on the wall in a museum and call it art, but it seems sort of stupid.” I was contemplating how to respond when Phil, a tattooed veteran who’d served as a staff sergeant and counterintelligence operative in Afghanistan raised his hand. “It reminded me of battle,” he said. “The horrible spectacle of it, the instinctive fear it raises in you, which is both exhilarating and terrifying.” I was awed by this forum in which two such divergent reactions could be expressed within moments of each other.

My own relationship with the military is a tangled one. My father served in the Navy, and went to graduate school in 1952 on the GI Bill. He was on active duty for three years, and in the Naval Reserve for 22 more. Every Tuesday night he would put on a uniform and drive 20 miles to Rockford, Ill., for training drills. As a young kid I was amazed at the transformation: from jean-jacket-wearing college professor who quoted Sartre at the dinner table and sang Pete Seeger songs in the shower to a crisply dressed military man.

Later it became more complicated. As a long-haired, rebellious teenager, I quickly forgot about the positive, life-changing experience my father had had in the Navy when I regularly railed against the military-industrial complex during our dinner conversations. As editor of my high-school newspaper, I wrote an article demanding that ROTC be expelled from campus.

Some 25 years later, when U.S. veterans started appearing in my classes at Fordham College at Lincoln Center, I was immediately impressed. I still am. These students are worldly, broad-minded, hungry for knowledge, and ready to work. They expand the horizons of the classroom by their mere presence. An analysis of The Battle of Algiers or The Hurt Locker is immeasurably enriched by the voices of those who have been under fire, and their critical capacities have been enhanced by their life experiences. They speak from all sides of the political and aesthetic spectrum with hard-earned conviction and verve. And lest it seem like I’m painting them all with one brush, I should add that a few stopped coming to class and ended up failing my courses. It’s important to remember that those who were in uniform are not uniform.

Ultimately, I see the divide—to the extent that there is one—between students who have served in the military and those who haven’t as a healthy addition to the classroom. It can lead to awed silences, moments of tension and misunderstanding, even misguided questions. “You don’t know how many students have asked me how many people I’ve killed. What a ridiculous thing to ask someone you don’t know!” my student Phil told me once. But in an academic community we are all there to question our own assumptions, to be surprised, and to be willing to let another’s viewpoint or reaction challenge our own.

The presence of military veterans in my classroom personifies and humanizes armed conflict in provocative ways and forces me to re-examine my own values. I’m sure that in the long run it has that effect on many of my students as well. So, yes, let’s do all we can to make the transition from military service to college classroom easier for the nation’s recent veterans. But let’s also remember that we’re not doing it only for them, we’re doing it for us.

Military Veterans Bring Value to the Classroom | 2014 | Writing