Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

"Where do they get young men like this?"

One answer is read Thomas Ricks’ fine book, Making the Coprs, which describes the first months of a group of Marine recruits. Here the marines learn the ethic of service, rather than the debased individualism most knew in civilian life.


From my own experience, most prominently three years of teaching and research at the U.S. Air Force Academy, I can attest that a different ethic prevails in the military. Obviously there are exceptions, but the expectations are that the needs of the institution prevail over the desires of the individual. This can lead to absurdities, such as a specialist in one area performing duties in another for which he is far less qualified, but the principle abides-- serving the greater good. The individuals involved may not enjoy the process, and it requires considerable management skill, but the system aims at certain mission results, not individual self-improvement.

The scandals at the Air Force Academy can be explained as a perversion of the team ethic, in which covering up for others’ indiscretion takes the place of the institution as a whole. There is much more to be said about this, of course.

Perhaps the best contrast to be made between the ethos of the military academies and that at virtually all other institutions of higher education can be seen in the debate over affirmative action at the University of Michigan. While higher education seems dedicated to the advancement of self-indulgence in its myriad forms, black students favoring affirmative action appear to break from this crowd of individualists. Unfortunately, this spiritedness is in the service of a form of a racial consciousness that defeats the liberating purposes of genuine liberal education. This is another spurious form of dedication to a cause or a community. (Incidentally, invoking military academy policy to justify affirmative action at civilian universities is a non-starter; academy admissions are largely through a political process to begin with, cadets being nominated by congressmen.)

The balance these black students and many others seek is to be found in citizenship and service to a nation founded on the principles of the Declaration of Independence. The left and much of the right will not offer great support toward this goal. Black students who are clearly superior and who resent being cast as beneficiaries of quotas are poised to be those who will next be asked "where do they get young men and women like this?"

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