At a time in our nation’s history when the civil-military divide is widening, a Teach for America’s Warriors project would close that gap and restore a more transparent understanding of the military by our civilian counterparts. But more crucially, the unseen needs of our service members’ souls would be addressed in the hopes of an awakened desire to pursue the good, true, and beautiful.
The Public Discourse recently published an essay titled, “Education and the Restoration of Moral Agency,” in which Professor R.J. Snell argued:
“Many students today lack a real formation in moral order and agency. Few adults have taught them what a worthwhile life looks like and what they could do to achieve it. University educators must give students access to authoritative moral claims, even as they allow them to judge and decide for themselves.”
This urgent observation stemmed from the author’s own interactions with college students throughout his teaching career. Reading this excellent essay brought to fruition my own thoughts on this pressing matter in regard to moral education, or lack thereof, in our armed forces.
While steaming off the coast of Japan and with a few hours to spare on watch, I asked several enlisted sailors, members of the combat watch team, the following basic questions: What is the purpose of our lives? How should we exercise free will and on what moral grounds? Is there such thing as an objective truth, or are all truth-based claims rooted in the eye of the beholder? What I expected to follow was a lively, interactive conversation; instead, I was greeted with a thousand-mile stare, penetrating through the metal hull of the warship and into the starry night sky.
In his essay, Professor Snell cited the book Lost in Translation, in which the authors conducted a study of rising adults, discovering that 34 percent of their interviewees “said that they simply did not know what makes anything morally right or wrong. They had no idea about the basis of morality.” To the dismay of the interviewers,
“these stumped interviewees could not even understand our questions on this point. No matter how many different ways we posed them… our very questions about morality’s sources did not or could not make sense to them. They replied… by saying things like ‘I just don’t understand, like what do you mean?’ and ‘I’m not really sure what you’re saying.’”
Similar responses were elicited from the enlisted sailors with whom I conversed. All were programmed to answer that truth was relative or came ex nihilo, and that the moral life was irrelevant in the pursuit of happiness and a promising career in the armed forces. But further discussion triggered a surprising change of heart and mind, as the sailors realized how unsubstantiated and defenseless their arguments were, and in the end, unearthed a gaping void in their souls.
In the debate between nature and nurture, the realm of moral agency, and the correct use of it, falls in the latter. Professor Snell asserts that it is the responsibility of the “parents, clergy, and teachers” to nurture our young kids, in their adolescent years, to imbue them with the wisdom and knowledge necessary, not merely for a successful career as the modern world so highly covets, but to become a free person, in the classical sense—able to habituate the right decisions, avoid tempting evils, and practice the virtues in one’s personal and professional lives. Unfortunately, all three key players in a child’s moral formation have overwhelmingly failed or avoided the topic altogether. Our nation’s alarming trend in the number of suicides, depression cases, and opioid addictions among our youth show the truth of this assertion.
To connect this with the armed forces, in my relatively short period in the naval service, I’ve personally witnessed the tragic fate of many sailors who were untethered to any immutable standard of morality. Their careers often ended in separation with an other-than-honorable, or worse, dishonorable discharge, due to sexual misconduct, abuse of power, improper execution of material procedures, misuse of prescription or over-the-counter medication, or excessive consumption of alcohol. For all these incidents, it was, above all other contributing factors, the lack of moral agency that resulted in their separation. Speaking with these discharged sailors, I learned that many enlisted to pursue a life better from that which they came, use their military service as a stepping-stone for other promising careers, or simply provide food for their spouse and kids. Instead, they returned to the civilian world with a permanent stain on their official record, thus adversely affecting their future employment and their chance at happiness.
In an attempt to rectify this growing, unacknowledged tumor in academia, Professor Snell proposes that “out of compassion, and with all respect for their freedom, universities should help them recover moral space, a sense of horizon, so they can judge and act as free and responsible agents.” Likewise, the military should do the same for its incoming enlisted service members, incorporating a modest curriculum in moral education in boot camp, taught by civilian professors, who value the importance of moral agency and ordered liberty in the pursuit of the good life. A more viable alternative would be for the officer corps to provide a moral education to those enlisted men and women whom they serve. Alas, this body is also neutered from the fruits of such an obsolete or outdated education.
The proposed teaching initiative would reflect the mission of the largely successful Teach for America program, but in this case would be geared towards the armed forces. The program could be named Teach for America’s Warriors, in which newly-minted doctoral graduates, who studied the humanities at an institution loyal to the classical tradition, can spend a year or two—at boot camps of the various military branches—teaching new recruits on the aforementioned subjects. At a time in our nation’s history when the civil-military divide is widening, this project would close that gap and restore a more transparent understanding of the military by our civilian counterparts. But more crucially, the unseen needs of our service members’ souls would be addressed in the hopes of an awakened desire to pursue the good, true, and beautiful.
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The featured image (detail) is courtesy of Pixabay.