Our University: Reserve Officers’ Training Corps

The season and current events cause me to offer this slightly modified piece originally published on July 11, 2008.  The importance and value of voluntary military training in universities cannot be argued, nor can the interdependence in mission of a strong national defense and a vibrant university community in protecting and providing liberty in a free society. 

Walter V. Wendler

The idea of coupling military training and university education originated in the U.S. in 1783. New York Governor George Clinton proposed that civilian colleges, one in each state of the union, offer military training to students.  The construct is remarkably similar to what happens today at many of our nation’s colleges and universities.

In the early 1800’s universities established military units on campuses, and began to integrate the discipline of military training with the freedom of intellectual inquiry for the benefit of the nation. 

To be sure, the national military academies are important to the armed forces.  They produce a great number of officers for all branches of service; however, they do not put as many men and women in uniform as do the civilian colleges of the nation.  This is the way it must be in a free society.  Currently, 39 percent of all active duty officers in the Department of Defense are graduates of ROTC programs.

Our armed services protect freedom and independence and therefore the mission of the university.  The pursuit of truth pushed and pulled by politics, the church, industry, commerce and other forces in the social milieu in which universities are embedded is our real work.  The untidiness of this pursuit requires safety and security and highlights the powerful reciprocity resident in this seemingly unholy marriage. 

Eight of the ten best universities in the world have opportunity for military training on campus according the Academic Ranking of World Universities.  And the same eight are located within the borders of the United States.  There is a basic relationship between freedom of expression and the hedges and fortifications required to sustain and preserve it.  The ROTC provides an environment that nourishes this relationship. 

It is healthy and natural that the presence of the ROTC on university campuses is integral to the intellectual life of the university.  Without physical security and a sense of safety, intellectual freedom is nearly impossible to attain and when achieved, comes at great cost.   Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s life testifies to the cost of intellectual freedom in a nation with a military driven by its own engine, rather than civilian minds of men and women educated and trained to think of freedom, its benefit, and the burden of its absence.  This happens in great universities.

University ROTC programs affect the lives of many students, and provide opportunities otherwise unavailable to them.  ROTC members are educated in mind like all other students, and trained in military discipline to serve our nation.  This powerful combination is good for the student, and beyond this personal benefit , essential for the nation in the preservation of a free society. 

With even superficial study, history teaches that in a free and thoughtful society what benefits the individual sustains the state.

The genesis for this powerful combination of free inquiry and military training in the U.S. was established as canon when the Morrill Act of 1862 was signed by Abraham Lincoln.  Its conception can be traced to Illinois College and the work of Jonathan Baldwin Turner, a professor there, a full decade before its adoption. The Morrill Act stipulated in part that, 

… one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics…, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life

The Reserved Officers’ Training Corp should be an integral part of university life for the benefit of individual and state.

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