Soldiers in the Classroom

What the classroom full of veterans wanted most was, as one of them put it, "to help our families understand what we went through." The course was in communication, and it was part of an educational program for veterans of the Vietnam war. The teacher — my colleague in the federally funded program — had asked them what they most wanted to learn, and that was their primary answer: to explain to those closest to them the hell they endured.

Our newest generation of veterans will be returning to a warmer welcome than those who served in Vietnam, but the kind of war they fought is similar, and their needs will be as great. By one count, over 34,000 are injured, some severely. Others are or will be torn apart by psychological trauma. And many others will experience terrible distress as they try to find their way with family and community, the economy and education.

What kind of support will our society provide for them? As a young man, I taught English in that program for Vietnam vets, so I got a sense of life after service is over, after physical wounds are healed, after the ceremonies – if there were any – and handshakes have receded into memory. Then soldiers have their lives to pick up or create anew.

Advocates brought to public attention the inadequate funding and delivery of health care for recent vets; less public until the deliberations surrounding the new GI Bill were the limited resources for education and the many problems young veterans face as they try to reenter school. The rising cost of living combined with rising costs of tuition, textbooks, and supplies dash many hopes, but even those who can make it financially typically face significant academic and social problems.

The program that contained the communication class could serve as a model for how to help the men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Fortunately, a number of colleges are responding to this new generation of veterans with a range of support services: financial aid assistance, counseling, orientation programs, and social clubs. These are valuable resources.

But my sense is that returning soldiers would be better served through a program that includes significant coursework as well as services. One such effort is the laudable SERV (Supportive Education for the Returning Veteran) program at Cleveland State. But there are few others.

The programs I’d like to see could run through some part of the first year (as SERV does) or function as a preparatory or bridge program that precedes but is linked to further matriculation.

The key idea is to treat a complex educational issue in a comprehensive and integrated way. To respond adequately to educational needs, the program has to address psychological, social, and economic needs as well. And, hand in glove, some social and psychological problems – inability to concentrate, feelings of intellectual inadequacy – don’t fully manifest themselves unless one is in a classroom, immersed in English or math or poli sci.

The Veterans Special Education Program was a twelve-week crash course in college preparation. The veterans called it academic boot camp. The curriculum included representative freshman-year courses in English, psychology, communications, and mathematics, so students got a sense of what lay before them – a reality check – and were able to begin college with some credits, a leg up. The courses also addressed fundamental cognitive and social skills: critical writing and reading, mathematics, human relations, and communication.

The courses were supported with tutoring. A number of the veterans had poor academic backgrounds, so some needed a good deal of assistance with their writing, with reading academic material, or with all the strategies for doing well in school: managing time, note taking, studying for exams. But the tutoring also made the academic work more humane, no small thing, for many of the students carried with them a history of insecurity and anger about matters academic.

They were being asked to write essays analyzing poetry or comparing sociological or psychological theories and to read more carefully and critically than they had before. The challenge stirred strong feeling. Some of the students shut down and withdrew, and others erupted. One marine scout I was working with got so frustrated that, in a blur of rage and laughter, he bit off the corner of his paper before handing it to me.

It wasn’t enough for us to do our work within the confines of the classroom. The staff would follow up when a student missed a few days, making phone calls, driving over to an apartment or hotel room, finding someone in awful shape. We had a rich network of referrals for psychological counseling – the nearby VA hospitals but also local agencies and civic organizations. And for those who needed it, we had referrals for financial counseling as well. Finally, the program included advising to assist the students in selecting and applying to appropriate colleges and universities. With help from our counselor, the fellow who sank his teeth into that essay got into UCLA, majoring in sociology and East Asian studies.

All this created a sense of community, something the veterans often noted. For all their social and political differences, they shared the war, and now they were preparing for reentry into the world they had left behind. The staff put on social events, but the real community, I believe, was formed through a course of study that was intensive, generous with assistance, and geared toward the next phase of the veterans’ lives.

For years now we have been awash with “support our troops” rhetoric, and politicians use it as a patriotic trump card. One grand irony in all this is the shameful level of health care some veterans have been getting and the resistance a number of conservatives and the Pentagon itself displayed in the face of recent legislation for a new G.I. Bill.

Rather than patriotic talk, I’d like to hear about programs that are comprehensive and address the multiple needs our troops have when they return home. Programs that provide knowledge and build skill. Programs that are thick with human contact. Programs that meet veterans where they are and provide structure and guidance that assist them toward a clear goal. Programs that build a community while leading these young men and women back to their own communities.
Educational programs for special populations tend toward single-shot solutions: a few basic skills courses, or tutoring, or counseling. But the best programs work on multiple levels, integrate a number of interventions. Such programs emerge from an understanding of the multiple barriers faced by their participants, but also from an affirmation of the potential of those participants. This is a huge point. The richness of the program matches the perception of the capacity of the people who populate it.

This is how really to support our troops. And it is how we should think about an education that, of necessity, has to be deeply embedded in the classroom while going beyond it to address the many needs and demands that collide in that classroom.

Mike Rose is on the faculty of the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies and the author of The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker and Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us.


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