November 11, 2019

SAD: Cold Welcome for Veterans on Campus: Students at elite colleges seek to undermine the values that service members signed up to defend.

“But don’t you ever feel like a sucker for serving?”

A fellow military veteran asked me this question a couple of years ago, when I was a senior at Yale. Like me, he had recently completed his service and was studying at a top university.

He said he was mystified, observing that the predominantly working- and middle-class people in the military swear an oath to defend with their lives the U.S. Constitution, including the First and Second amendments. Meanwhile, affluent college students regularly trash the First and seek to dismantle the Second. Are veterans being duped, he questioned, into believing they are upholding American values while the richest kids in the world—the ones being groomed for success and power—try to undermine them?

He’s not the only one who feels that way. Many veterans I know who enter college are bewildered by what they see: students from the top income decile expressing derision for the values that service members signed up to defend. Perhaps they could be forgiven for feeling like suckers.

Seeing our peers question the Constitution isn’t the only jarring experience for veterans. For many, the treatment of race on campus is a major culture shock. The military is perhaps the most meritocratic institution in the U.S. Women and men of all backgrounds come together, united in their purpose to defend this great country. The best research we have shows that women and nonwhite service members report greater job satisfaction and quality of life than do white male members. Arbitrary physical features like race and sex were treated as inconsequential because we were evaluated primarily on rank and performance. In college, however, there are clear social incentives to disparage people for their race.

I recall being stunned when one student, with a gleeful expression, bellowed to a classmate, “F— your white tears!” Other students around her snapped their fingers to express approval. One’s sex is fair game, too. For veterans trying to integrate on campus, insulting men signals coalitional solidarity with those who adhere to the dominant campus ideology. This works even, perhaps especially, if you are a white man.

The intent behind the insult matters. In the military, we exchanged insults often. It’s a form of social bonding, a way to strengthen relationships with the target of the insult. It helps to bring us together. College students also insult each other to bond socially—but not with the targets of the insults. They wish to impress the onlookers. They’re looking for bystanders to snap their fingers or share their social-media posts. The purpose is to vilify a transgressor in order to bond with observers. It’s effective.

Higher education in America today is dysfunctional, and actively destructive.

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