You may have read recently that buried within the new federal "No Child Left Behind Act" is the requirement that, in exchange for receiving federal dollars, secondary schools will be required to provide, upon request from military recruiters, "access to... students and directory information on those students." In addition, schools are required to provide telephone numbers and addresses of all students, except those whose parents request otherwise. The requirement is replicated in the Defense Authorization Act of 2002. Education Secretary Rod Paige and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in a jointly signed letter dated Oct. 2, spell out the requirement for the nation's superintendents and indicate they will be back in touch with the details.
Liberals, predictably, are outraged. My child? Required to speak to a militarist? Students must listen to a uniform who wants to turn them into killers? Isn't this just the reason that we worked so hard to get ROTC units kicked off college campuses? And about those addresses and phone numbers -- how invasive is that? Is this the way the Bush-Ashcroft police state will arrive? And so on and so forth.
Now, to be fair, Paige and Rumsfeld don't do themselves any favors by signing off on a letter that jumps ahead of the actual law. The statute reads: "Each local educational agency receiving assistance under this Act shall provide military recruiters the same access to secondary school students as is provided generally to post-secondary educational institutions or to prospective employers of those students."
Our two secretaries don't mention that the military is actually just being placed on the same level as universities and corporations. When has any high school denied access to a business or college recruiter? Why is it okay for corporate America to do a sell job, but not okay for the U.S. Army?
We know why, don't we? Corporate America is politically acceptable (if not necessary always "correct"). But the military remains, at least in some liberal circles, "politically incorrect," since Vietnam and certainly until 9/11. School administrators, who typically seek to dodge public controversy, often cave to the pressure and say no to military visits, or so Congress has concluded. They make a good point. Why is it okay for schools to allow access to corporate representatives from companies that make, say, computers used by the military, but not welcome those who want to recruit young people to operate those computers? It isn't.
But our real problem is more fundamental. When schools depart from education and instead embrace job training -- and here, while the education statute doesn't extend to colleges and universities, in spirit it does and should -- they lose the right to draw distinctions between one kind of job and another. Some -- and I count myself among those who share this now quaint view of education -- argue that the problem of job distinctions isn't cause for concern so much as is the education establishment's pandering to the job market. So many of our educational institutions are led by administrators who scramble for constituent support within their respective business communities. They encourage job training disguised as education, whether in high school or college. There is an important distinction between the two.
Once we abandoned the draft and adopted an all-volunteer Armed Services, we confronted the military with the challenge of competing for recruits. No longer could our recruiters rely on the appeal of "Duty, Honor, Country." Instead, they had to market a career. They began selling job security, education opportunities, marketable training for life after the military and, yes, a dose of adventure. My personal favorite was the Navy's romantic, soft-hued television spot staged on an aircraft carrier: "Dawn Launch in the China Sea." Okay, so most of the sailors work deep in the ship and never see a dawn launch, but why nit-pick? The ad was a big hit.
Now the Army -- always the toughest sell of the Armed Forces -- has evolved from "Be all you can be" to "the Army of one." These changing marketing messages, carefully tested and promoted with millions of dollars, reflect how seriously recruiters take competing with the private sector for the attention of young people. When the military lost the singular claim of duty, honor and country, it lost the moral high ground. The military can no longer claim to be different than IBM, except to the extent that it might promise better benefits.
And so we come to the rub. For the military, you see, is different than IBM or Boeing or Microsoft, or indeed all of corporate America. Indeed, government service, in general, is different. But we have lost this appreciation. Kennedy's clarion call, "Ask what you can do for your country" failed to survive the tragedy of Vietnam, the cynicism of Watergate and the ideology of the '80s, so succinctly articulated in the movie Wall Street by the protagonist, Gordon Gecko, when he said "Greed is good."
Sept. 11 served to remind us that government matters, that public service can and should be a noble calling. Moreover, surely, the Enron and WorldCom scandals reminded us that greed isn't so good after all.
Noble callings and the public good -- if our schools, through rigorous liberal arts education, can equip students to understand and sort through these concepts, military recruiting will take care of itself. If not, the game boils down to "Dawn Launch in the China Sea" versus corporate America. Sadly, in so many high schools, colleges and universities, that's about where things stand. Access for recruiters is the least of our worries.