What you didn’t hear much about from either side were the people who do America’s fighting: the more than 2,000 Americans who have been killed in the war in Afghanistan, for example, or the more than 18,000 who have been wounded — or the thousands more who have returned home with disorders of the mind and soul, caused by what they have seen and done, that will be with them all their lives. Or, for that matter, those who come home safe and sound and who need and deserve further education.
And that’s not surprising. For decades, in theory, America has left its fighting to professionals — volunteers who commit themselves to one of the branches of our armed forces (I say in theory, because not all the reservists who have done multiple tours in Iraq or Afghanistan might agree that they knew what they were getting into — or that they had fair warning — when they joined up). And volunteering for the military is not a path that attracts most children of elite families or most students at elite universities.
Military problems, you could say, meanly but correctly, are not like the problems involved in hiring a nanny or getting flood insurance for your summer house. They’re not problems of the rich. With a few honorable exceptions, the editors and journalists who determine what fills our media don’t find the fates of those who serve very interesting — especially once they have made the transition to veteran status. Neither do most of the politicians who determine our national policies. Most of them, after all, are the children of the elite, and all of them belong to it. The same is true, I’m sorry to say, of that small, strange province of the elite world that I belong to: professors and administrators at rich private colleges and universities, from Princeton to Pomona.
After World War I, Princeton had its own army ROTC artillery unit, with horses to pull the cannon and a course on hippology on the books for the hundreds of students who joined it. After World War II, Princeton’s administration planned for a future in which every able-bodied student would eventually serve. In the age of the GI Bill, Princeton joined its sister schools in educating hundreds of its own who had left to fight — and a good many other veterans who didn’t come from wealthy families or private schools and owed their educations to government and university support. It was the least that America and its professors could do to help those who had fought and to honor those who died.
Nowadays, Princeton and most of its immediate competitors don’t see things quite the same way. Most of us haven’t joined the Yellow Ribbon Program that helps recipients of GI Bill support to pay for their education. And most of us haven’t managed to attract more than a handful of veterans as undergraduates. More than one school refuses to report how many veterans it counts among its students (much as they used to do in the days of quotas when they lied about the numbers of Jews and Catholics). Princeton has just one American veteran enrolled as an undergraduate this year. Foreign veterans may well be another story. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that more veterans of the Israeli armed forces than of the American are studying here.
A few elite schools do a great deal better. Columbia has a special School of General Studies, designed after World War II to serve veterans and others who have interrupted their schooling. And it offers the Yellow Ribbon Program. Just after Veterans Day a year ago, Michael Winerip of the New York Times reported that Columbia had 210 veterans enrolled, “up from 50 three years ago.” That’s what you can do when you try. Things are different there: Its website has a nice image of its dean attending the Marine Corps Birthday Ball with Columbia students. Better still, ask my friends who teach there about how exciting they and their regular students find the perspectives and concerns that veterans bring to their classes.
Cornell doesn’t do as well as Columbia, but it’s outdone us by a shaming margin. So have Rice and Rochester. Strikingly, Vassar — like Princeton, a selective liberal arts school not located in a big city — is going all out to do better as well. Vassar has joined the Yellow Ribbon program. Its Admissions website declares that “Vassar College is actively seeking to enroll qualified men and women who are veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces,” and it goes on to explain why Vassar is “a good option for vets.” Military experience, training and demonstrated leadership, as well as academic achievements, count toward admission. Most imaginative of all, Vassar works with the Posse Foundation to create groups of veterans, who will provide one another with support while studying at a college where most students can’t imagine what they have lived through.
A well-informed friend tells me that Princeton may have decided to join the Yellow Ribbon Program after all. I very much hope this is true. But it will take a bigger effort than that — an imaginative effort comparable to Vassar’s — to show that we mean all of that high-sounding talk about diversity and service.
Anthony Grafton is the Henry Putnam University Professor of History. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.