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20.3.12

"My soldier defends the freedom of your honor student"

Yesterday I spent some time in traffic behind a truck with a bumper sticker that had the US Army logo and the slogan "My soldier defends the freedom of your honor student." I couldn't find a picture of the specific sticker online, but you can find a similar sentiment on other bumper stickers, image memes, and Facebook groups.

There's nothing wrong with taking pride in your child's honorable military service. What I find interesting, though, is the implied opposition between military service and academic success. To begin with, the hypothetical other driver's honor student may also be a soldier! I was an honor student in high school, and for exactly that reason several branches of the military actively recruited me. As a teacher, I've found that some of my best students are either ROTC or returning to get their degree after serving a tour of duty in the military. And this should be no surprise. Many of the same values are conducive to success in the military and in formal education -- self-discipline, attention to detail, obedience to authority.

Placing "soldier" and "honor student" in opposition turns an expression of parental pride into a direct shot in the culture wars. The implication is that military service is a more honorable path than other careers. This echoes the common sentiment that no other career would be possible if we were overrun by our enemies, and thus the military is of more fundamental importance -- a prerequisite to doing anything else. But of course this can be said of many other careers. Without farmers, for example, soldier and civilian alike would starve. More to the point here, without academic-style learning, our military wouldn't have the laser-guided missiles and GPS systems that they need in order to defend us from our enemies.

It's unfortunate that a certain strain of conservative thinking has set up military personnel and academic personnel as icons of two opposing factions in US culture. On the one hand, it leads to an obsession with symbolic shows of genuflection to "support our troops" that stifle attempts to criticize those troops and commanders who are not serving honorably. And it leads on the other hand to a climate of anti-intellectualism that sees learning new things about the world as a threat to our way of life and an elite imposition rather than as a joy.

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