John Kerry's insult actually offered a little insight. His "advice" to students at Pasadena City College in California would have been conventional wisdom on almost any "elite" campus, particularly in the Ivy League, where just about anyone is eager to tell you that only chumps go to Iraq -- or anywhere within the sound of the guns.
When President Nixon ended the draft of an earlier generation the principled protests against the Vietnam War vanished overnight. Most of the Ivy League schools continue to bar the ROTC from campus. Harvard booted ROTC in 1969 and banished it again in 1993, presumably because the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy violated campus ideals. The crimson cadets now train at MIT, funded by an alumni trust.
One of the most unpopular views of Lawrence Summers, who served briefly as president of Harvard, was his support for the military. He was the first Harvard president to talk at an ROTC commissioning ceremony after it was exiled from campus. He told his students to honor patriotism by understanding the requirements of national defense after 9/11: "Not the soft understanding that glides over questions of right and wrong, but the hard-won comprehension that the threat before us demands." He was soon exiled himself.
An honest embrace of diversity and multiculturalism would require inclusion of the military. But in the Ivy League not all diverse cultures are equal. Faculty and students share John Kerry's contempt for the military man and woman.
But the senator's inadvertent insight hasn't received the notice it deserves: A college education doesn't necessarily make someone smart. In "Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education," Harry R. Lewis, dean of Harvard College, describes what Harvard students don't learn even when they study. "In the absence of any pronouncement that anything is more important than anything else for Harvard students to know, Harvard is declaring that one can be an educated person in the 21st century without knowing anything about genomes, chromosomes or Shakespeare."
Derek Bok, Harvard's current president, echoes and extends this criticism in "Our Underachieving Colleges," where students can't write, can't reason, can't speak or read a foreign language, and lack the ability to think critically. "Most," he writes, "have never taken a course in quantitative reasoning or acquired the knowledge needed to be a reasonably informed citizen in a democracy." Worse, they don't know what they don't know. Surveys show these naive relativists, destructive deconstructionists and superficial sophomore philosophers, incapable of analyzing and dissecting even their own ideas, to be immensely pleased with their educations. Maybe it's just as well they don't serve in the military.
But problems emerge when the schism mentality expressed by John Kerry fuses contempt for military service with a sense of superiority for not serving. In "AWOL: The Unexcused Absence of America's Upper Classes from Military Service -- and How It Hurts Our Country," Kathy Roth-Douquet and Frank Schaeffer expose the core of such elitism. "When those who benefit most from living in a country contribute the least to its defense, and those who benefit least are asked to pay the ultimate price, something happens to the soul of that country."
A prejudice against the military, coupled with grade inflation and lack of intellectual discipline, combine to create spoiled and pampered students who lack the will to defend their country from those who would destroy it. It was not always thus. In World War I, a draft was established in part to prevent the nation's most privileged young men from volunteering, compelled though they were by a sense of honor and a desire to serve. They were needed more, so it was argued, for civilian jobs and leadership at home.
Fewer than a third of the current members of Congress have worn the uniform, down from three-quarters in 1971. Congressmen of the future are even less likely to be veterans, and some of the veterans in Congress today are like John Kerry, infatuated with the politics of protest. Our wars, says a curmudgeon of my acquaintance, "are started by men educated at Harvard and Yale and fought by young men educated at Central High School and Oklahoma State and Colorado Christian and North Carolina A&T."
First Lt. Vincent J. Tuohey, Class of '01, is one of the Harvard exceptions. He graduated to serve in Iraq and learned more in the military than he ever did on the banks of the Charles. "Decisiveness, discipline and focus were not skills that I honed in college," he tells the Harvard Crimson. "Understandably, Harvard did not prepare me for the stresses of combat or the skills needed to fight an insurgency. The Army did."