The year was 1917. At the beginning of the spring semester, the Harvard Crimson reported that 1,000 undergraduates were ready to enlist in the Reserve Officers’ Training Program (ROTC), including students from the law school, from other graduate schools, and even members of the faculty. The recent crisis in international affairs had created a need for qualified military leaders, and the editorial hailed the school’s vigorous response to it: “That Harvard is the first University to adopt an intensive system of training officers should not be a matter of pride, but rather a basis for the hope that other colleges will establish the same system, and that the foundations of a great citizen army will be laid among our young men.”
Ninety years later, Harvard leads in the opposite direction. John Kerry may have apologized for saying that those who make the most of their education “can do well,” while the rest “get stuck in Iraq,” but the same cynical message has long since been issuing from elite centers of learning. There are currently ROTC programs at hundreds of American colleges, but the faculties of Harvard, Columbia, Brown, Yale, Dartmouth and Stanford continue their ban on campus military training, a deficiency all the more striking in schools that offer a superabundance of every other type of activity.
Military service is a form of protection that the young must offer the rest of us. The age of undergraduates, 17 to 23, coincides with the universal age for military conscription. When the United States ended its draft in 1973, it turned the protection of the country and its vital interests over to a force of volunteers. At that point, the word ought to have issued from the academic community that democracy will henceforth depend on the readiness of the best and the brightest to volunteer for duty. Instead, faculties shaped by the antiwar movement drove ROTC and its recruiters from the campuses. Adding hypocrisy to injury, they later blamed the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward gay enlistment for a ban that was already in effect!
Most Americans reacted to the attacks of 9/11. The president took the war to the enemy. Congress launched a commission of inquiry and began putting its recommendations into effect. Tens of thousands of families sent children and loved ones into battle. Democracies are notoriously — and commendably — reluctant to resort to military action, which means that almost every sector of society joined the debate over how best to respond to the aggression against us.
The elite universities alone kept silent. They did not undertake an inquiry into the reliability and adequacy of programs in Islamic and Middle East Studies, much less encourage those who “do well” academically to volunteer in the national defense. The only anxieties I heard expressed at faculty meetings since 9/11 were over the anthrax scare as it might affect the campus, and the potential encroachments on privacy of the Patriot Act. Not a word about new responsibilities the university might assume for a democratic way of life under attack.
This is not for lack of nerve among students. Back in 1999, following months of open debate, Harvard’s Undergraduate Council voted to support bringing ROTC back to campus. A more recent Dartmouth student poll found students in favor of greater administrative support for its ROTC cadets. The University of California at Berkeley, which has Navy, Army and Air Force ROTC units, reports an increase in all three services. Even students who are themselves reluctant to join the military resent that classmates ready to make the effort should encounter roadblocks instead of encouragement.
Individual teachers have also spoken out for the return of ROTC to their schools. Harvard professor of economics Gregory Mankiw writes, “No one benefits more from the freedoms that the military defends than academics, who use the freedoms of expression more liberally than the average American. It seems particularly reprehensible for us to free ride as completely as we do.” But not even Lawrence Summers, who spoke out forcefully in support of ROTC during his tenure as president of Harvard, was able to take on the faculty on this issue.
University administrations live in fear — but not of al Qaeda or the destructive capabilities of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong Il. They fear the tactics of disruption and violent uprising perfected by radicals of the 1960s and available to their heirs. The more prestigious the university, the more traumatized it seems to be by memories of riots it was once powerless to quell. Preying on those fears, dissident groups have learned to use the politics of intimidation to impose their agenda, as was recently demonstrated by a consortium of student groups at Columbia University that organized to prevent the speech of Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist. So far, Columbia’s President Lee Bollinger has left these hooligans unpunished, making it all the more unlikely that he would risk inviting them or their peers to participate in the national defense.
Recent surveys confirm that university faculties have been tilting steadily leftward, but I think it is wrong to assume they have been tilting toward “liberalism” as is commonly assumed. Liberalism worthy of the name emphasizes freedom of the individual, democracy and the rule of law. Liberalism is prepared to fight for those freedoms through constitutional participatory government, and to protect those freedoms, in battle if necessary. What we see on the American campus is not liberalism, but a gutted and gutless “gliberalism,” that leaves to others the responsibility for governance, and arrogates to itself the right to criticize. It accepts money from the public purse without assuming reciprocal duties for the public good. Instead of debating public policy in the public arena, faculty says, “I quit,” but then continues to draw benefits from the system it will not protect.
The national and international crisis may eventually pull the elite universities into action, but by then, gliberalism will have done its damage.
Ms. Wisse is the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish literature and professor of comparative literature at Harvard.
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