Former Williams prof. Marc Lynch, in a response to a Tom Friedman column, writes about officers returning from military service to academia, particularly to pursue graduate studies in political science and Middle Eastern studies:
I’ve met a lot of these officers over the last few years, and have frequently been deeply impressed with them. A remarkable number of my students at Williams College (and later from George Washington) chose to serve in the military after graduation in the post-9/11 period (and some, like the much-missed Nate Krissoff, didn’t make it back). There is absolutely no reason why such officers and soldiers wouldn’t choose to pursue advanced degrees, or succeed brilliantly when they do.
When they enter academic programs, these veterans will (and already do) bring a great deal of on-the-ground experience to the classroom and to their research. Many will (and do) enter their programs with far more advanced language skills than did earlier generations of students, although perhaps with more familiarity with colloquial spoken dialects than with Modern Standard Arabic (reversing a common traditional pattern). Their point of reference will be (and is) Iraq and the Gulf, not Israeli-Palestinian affairs, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, or other areas where a great number of current faculty began their encounters with the region. And they will have much greater familiarity and comfort with military and security issues than do many currently in the field.
I doubt that the main effect will be to push the field to the “right”, as I’ve heard suggested. The officers I’ve met are all over the map politically and in terms of their intellectual aspirations. Indeed, I’d guess that the bias would be towards pragmatism and empiricism, and against any kind of ideological doctrines. And at any rate, the allegations of the politicization of Middle East Studies — particularly political science — have always been wildly exaggerated. How the critics of the “Human Terrain Program” over in Anthropology might react, I admit I don’t know…
That’s not to say that there might not be depressing misperceptions on both sides. I’ve had a few soldiers interested in pursuing degrees ask me nervously whether they would be shunned by academics. I would be shocked if any experienced prejudice or bias because of their war service — certainly not at a place like GWU — and would be appalled if they did. I certainly hope that such concerns wouldn’t stop them from applying. I suppose there’s a chance that some faculty might feel threatened by students from such a background — but those are probably professors who have trouble in other areas as well, frankly. Constructive argument and productive friction between people with very different backgrounds, perspectives and knowledge should enrich and even electrify a well-run classroom, not cause problems. That’s a good, not a negative.
To put it bluntly, most top political scientists don’t have a lot of experience beyond being political scientists. That is to say, the top Ph.D. students often enter graduate school straight from undergraduate programs. They might have interesting summer internships, but otherwise have limited hands-on experience with politics or international relations…..
The problem comes when everyone in a profession pursues the identical career track — to the point where those who deviate from the career track are thought of as strange or different. At that point, the profession loses something ineffable.
So, former members of the military should be ecouraged to enter Ph.D. programs — as should those who worked on the ground for NGOs and civil affairs branches of the government. I can’t guarantee that it will lead to better scholarship. At a minimum, however, it improves the quality of the teaching and the conversations that take place between colleagues. And I’m pretty confident that that leads to better research.