John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Veterans’ Day 2014: What Brings Us All Together?

November 12, 2014John N. GardnerInsights1

Veterans’ Day is a day I look forward to each year. It makes me feel one with others like no other ritual I participate in. And it makes me wonder what activities could really bind our students together and cut across all the divisions of red and blue state America that they bring to campus with them.

This year’s Veterans’ Day was picture perfect in my little mountain town in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. It was warm, pushing 70. There was not a cloud in the sky. A remembrance ceremony is held this day in front of the courthouse in Brevard, a town of 6000. I estimate that maybe two hundred people turn out, at least five percent of them who are politicians there to take advantage of the podium to pander to voters, largely Veterans like me. This political ritual disgusts me, but it is as American as apple pie.

I stood with a line of sight with the dais and courthouse on my right, the honor guard to the center in front of the memorial for the dead, and the flag, and to my left the face of beautiful Bracken Mountain, where I run some days, about five minutes from my office.

And I know that I am also standing with fellow citizens in front of their courthouses all over our country at this very same hour. I love that feeling. I give in to it and let it take me away, mentally.

I was of similar age to the majority of the Veterans present. The majority of us had to have served in the 60’s or early 70’s or before. Between us and the traditional age college students of today, there is a huge age and generation gap. Our students are not compelled to perform any kind of national service and relatively very few do so voluntarily. When I occasionally give commencement speeches I always ask the graduates to raise their hands if they are going to serve our country. And very few do. I have even had audiences where not one hand goes up. So I tell them that we expect all college graduates to serve our country.

But I was not similar to most of my fellow Veterans today, I assume, in terms of educational attainment level, socio-economic status, occupation, religious and/or political affiliation. None of this makes me any better—or worse—just different.

But I am like them in that all of us had this one life changing experience in common.

All of us served a greater good, the common welfare.

All of us took the same oath.

All of us gave up our personal freedom to do as we pleased. I learned that I could still think as I pleased but at times even that was an effort.

All of us were under the total control of our government and were ordered to go and serve somewhere. And usually it wasn’t in a location of first choice on what we called our “dream sheets.”

All of us had a mission. And we knew that mission. I had never before thought about having a mission. I sure think about it now, every day.

And we were proud of it.

All of us knew there was something that mattered more than our preferences and individual lives.

All of us were connected, bonded.

All of us were able in this one respect to transcend all the other differences that we had experienced in civilian life.

All of us had responsibility for the welfare of others.

All of us had responsibility for taxpayers’ property.

All of us ended up doing things we never dreamed we would do, including in my case, becoming a college professor, as ordered by the Air Force.

I was a military psychiatric social worker. Previously in college, I had no idea this was something I was preparing to do.

I know I helped many of my patients. The last I saw any of them was 46 years ago. But I remember many of them vividly.

Their names.

Their stories.

Their suffering.

In my memories I will carry them to my grave.

So what do our college students all have in common with each other: professors, tests, registration, parking, the food service….? What really bonds them together, transforms them, gives them a sense of purpose and mission? Is it mingling with other football fans, cheering, drinking, and celebrating? Is it attending the hottest rock concert in years? Will the performers be anyone they will remember for even a year? Is it a spring break trip? Is it the accumulation of a staggering student loan debt? Is there any sense of shared loyalty, affinity, duty to anyone other than themselves?

If we were to attempt to have our students all address a common good or cause, just what could that be? And how would we go about that? And would they take us seriously?

I wish politicians would run on a platform to bring back conscription.

In the meantime, I would settle for mandatory service learning and/or community service as a graduation requirement. But at most institutions, I won’t even get that.

One Comment

  1. Dana Lee LingNovember 18, 2014 at 1:45 amReply

    Good words! While I did not join the armed services, I did join Peace Corps. On the application is a section where you mark where you would not be willing to serve. There was a drought in sub-Saharan Africa and so I put that I did not want to serve there. Peace Corps of course sent me to Ghana, West Africa. I decided to go despite my own reservations as to how I would cope with a drought, only to find the rains had returned by the time I got there. The roads were so muddy that food could not be shipped out from the rainy areas to the areas still afflicted by drought. Those two years changed my world view and my career choice. I remain in debt to Kennedy for his vision in creating the Peace Corps, and thankful to the blind bureaucracy that went ahead and sent me where I said I did not want to go.

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