John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Digesting the Relationship Between the University-Military-Industrial Complex and Contemporary Undergraduate Education in the United States

Drew Koch
Vice President for New Strategy, Development, and Policy Initiatives

A blog is supposed to be short. So concise that it is profound. At least the ones that get read are. So when I told a relatively new colleague at the Gardner Institute (Rob Rodier) that I wanted to write a blog about undergraduate education, corporate and martial influences in academe, and contemporary culture and democracy in the United States – a topic on which I had completed a 335-page dissertation in 2008 – he had two simple words for me – digest it.

Apparently my prolix tendencies are patently obvious to even the newest of my work mates . . .

After considering that guidance, I came to the conclusion that few people wanted to watch me ingest those 335 pages and use the alimentary canal to absorb and assimilate them into my body. Well, maybe one or two folks did – but those were the 2 friends whose guidance generally got me into trouble.

As my eight-year old son explained to his teacher when asked about his parents’ education levels, his dad is a doctor, but not the kind of doctor that helps people. So, sorry Rob, I must leave that digestion stuff to board certified physicians. Instead, I have decided to write a blog that offers adapted elements from my dissertation in bite-sized nuggets. And those nuggets will be served up in topical dishes.

In essence, I will take what I used in my dissertation – as well as that which I have considered since I completed that tome – and provide it in condensed form with a special emphasis on how each offering relates to undergraduate education and why I believe that matters to you, the esteemed readers of the John N. Gardner Institute’s Blog.

I am going to devote a yet-to-be determined number of postings to discussing topics such as the role of the market and military in higher education in the United States since Eisenhower first uttered the phrase “Military-Industrial-Complex” – and, in the process, I will explore how and why Eisenhower’s warned-against-entity became what Fulbright came to label the military-industrial-academic complex. I will delve into the student-as-consumer movement and examine both what happens when education becomes a commodity and when race becomes commoditized in educational institutions. Other postings will address labor in the marketized postsecondary sector – including the struggles that confront the humanities in the era of “the new normal” – where financial firms are too big to fail and Homeland Security research institutes seem more abundant on campuses than Latin departments.

I need to make clear that I am not writing this series as an angry young man with a distain for all things commercial. I don’t feel that ROTC should not be on campus, and I am not anti-capitalist. Personally, I feel that colleges and universities cannot be ivory towers – they cannot be disconnected from the lived experience, and the lived experience in the United States is historically connected with the capitalist system and the military – often in ways that we may not even be able to fully comprehend or perhaps even perceive at all. To do otherwise – that is, to argue for the separation of the academy from the society and culture that it is supposed to both reflect on and shape – would make colleges and universities irrelevant. They would become of little use to the people and society they are supposed to serve.

But I also don’t feel that the academy’s sole or even consistent primary purpose should be to serve as the developer of workers, consumers, weapons, and/or soldiers. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments Jennifer Washburn expressed in her book University Inc. There, while making the point that the market is not perfect, she quotes the award winning economist (and former Business Week journalist and New Republic economics editor) Robert Kuttner, who wrote,

Markets do a great deal well, but they fall far short of being perfectly self-regulating . . . They spill over into realms where they don’t belong. A society that was a grand auction block would not be a political democracy worth having. And it would be far less attractive economically than its enthusiasts imagine . . . Everything must not be for sale.

My subsequent blog entries will explore the ongoing need and manner in which colleges and universities must work to balance between the market and martial demands on one hand, and the ideals and values that most colleges and universities have committed to uphold on the other. In a broad sense, it seeks to answer the question, “Is there room for the Socratic concept of the examined life in twenty-first century undergraduate education and, if so, what forms does that examination take?”

Socrates once defined the educated person as someone who knows they do not know it all. Because I fancy myself an educated person, I draw on the aforementioned Socratic definition to admit that I certainly don’t know it all – even (and perhaps especially) after a 335 page dissertation. For that reason, I invite your responses to that which I offer in this and all subsequent posts.

And while on the topic of subsequent posts, stay tuned next for an entry (or entries) on the role of for-profit consultants in higher education and the temporalization of the University-Military-Industrial Complex . . .

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