Letting Students Be Soldiers

Earlier this academic year, Harvard University commemorated the 70th anniversary of Memorial Church, dedicated for the Harvard alumni who died in World War I. The sermon recalled Harvard’s tradition of great service to America, in peace and in war, and called upon each of us to continue that noble legacy.

Yet current Harvard policies do not allow students to serve their country to the fullest. Incoming first-years are almost never allowed to defer their admissions for two years in order to volunteer for the U.S. military. In most cases, it is only those entering compulsory national or religious service who are granted two-year deferments. In addition, Harvard does not take into account the legal “independent financial status” conferred by the government on veterans when allocating its financial aid. If these two policies were amended, Harvard would encourage a renaissance of national service across the country and both the University and America would benefit.

Harvard would benefit because its future as a great American institution is inextricably linked to an American nation that is culturally vibrant, diverse, strong and well-governed. Harvard is rooted in its context—were it located in Mexico City instead of Cambridge, it would surely be a poorer university. Because so many of its alumni go on to the highest positions of American cultural and political leadership, Harvard has a strong moral obligation to instill the ideals of service in its students, giving them the experiential knowledge that makes for wise stewardship. It is important in a democracy that the elite be grounded in the common.

In addition, the military establishment plays such a large role in U.S. government that many Harvard graduates who go on to careers in science, politics, the media and business will be brought into direct contact with it. But most will have little or no previous interaction with the soldiers and sailors that compose the military—leaving them poorly equipped to deal with the Armed Services in an intelligent way. One need look no farther than Clinton’s first presidential term as proof of the miscalculations that can occur when ignorance and distrust are pronounced features of the civil-military relationship.

There would also be a direct and tangible effect on the Harvard community if only five percent of the entering class took advantage of a possible two-year deferment. In peer discussions and social interaction these students would express their views, drawing on experience to form important cultural bridges. A tour in the service would also offer a temporary break from academia into a journey of self-discovery, while at the same time providing service to country and community. Something is lacking in this couch-potato era when tests of one’s fortitude are so rare that “reality” television shows like Survivor and Fear Factor become yardsticks of courage. The military offers the real thing. Richard Henry Dana Jr., Class of 1837, author of Two Years Before the Mast, took a deferment and had the time of his life. To cure his failing eyesight and to test his mettle, he took a leave of absence in 1834 and shipped as a common sailor aboard a ship bound for California, via the South Seas and Cape Horn. His account of the experience is well worth the read.

But there are financial advantages as well if fast-tracked, ambitious students postpone their academic careers for two years of military service. The first is that as veterans these deferred students would have “independent financial status,” making them eligible—should Harvard choose to acknowledge it—for a much larger need-based grant and loan package. Second, these students would receive the traditional G.I. Bill scholarship funds—not a huge amount of money, but enough to make a difference. This would effectively lower the cost of the education, making a Harvard education attainable to additional lower- and middle-income students.

In 1944, the G.I. Bill made it possible for average soldiers to become scholars. That bill helped create 60 years of American prosperity. It educated America, made her more thoughtful and, indeed, more democratic. Now, as America confronts profound challenges abroad and at home, is the time for us to formulate a new version of the G.I. Bill—one that encourages a renewal of national service among our intellectual elite. Let us give our extraordinary students a chance to become, at least temporarily, ordinary soldiers.

Richard C. Arthur is an MPA student at the Kennedy School. He has served for over seven years in the Navy, and is currently in the Naval Reserve.