In 2001 Chicago’s Mayor, Richard M. Daley commented on an article in the online journal, Education Next, by then-Mayor of Oakland, California, Jerry Brown. Brown’s essay offered a rationale for the public military academies he was promoting for Oakland. In his letter to the editor, Daley congratulated Brown’s efforts and explained his own reasons for creating military schools in Chicago:
We started these academies because of the success of our Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (JROTC) program, the nation’s largest. JROTC provides students with the order and discipline that is too often lacking at home. It teaches them time management, responsibility, goal setting, and teamwork, and it builds leadership and self-confidence.
Today, Chicago has the most militarized public school system in the nation, with Cadet Corps for students in middle-school, over 10,000 students participating in JROTC programs, over 1,000 students enrolled in one of the five, soon-to-be six autonomous military high schools, and hundreds more attending one of the nine military high schools that are called “schools within a school.” Chicago now has a Marine Military Academy, a Naval Academy, and three army high schools. When an air force high school opens next year, Chicago will be the only city in the nation to have academies representing all branches of the military. And Chicago is not the only city moving in this direction: the public school systems of other urban centers with largely Black and immigrant low income students , including Philadelphia, Atlanta and Oakland, are being similarly re-formed—and deformed— through partnerships with the Department of the Defense.
As military recruiters nationwide fall short of their enlistment goals— a trend spanning a decade— and as the number of African Americans enlistees (once a reliable and now an increasingly reluctant source of personnel) has dropped by 41% over the last several years, the Department of the Defense has partnered with the Department of Education and city governments, to both sell its “brand” to young people and to secure positions of power over the lives of the most vulnerable youth. The federal No Child Left Behind Act is particularly aggressive, providing unprecedented military access to campuses and requiring schools to provide personal student information to the Army. In many schools JROTC programs replace physical education courses, recruiters assist in coaching athletic teams, and the military is provided space to offer kids a place to hang out and have a snack after school. Iin Chicago’s Senn High School, which serves a working class immigrant population—last year its students hailed from over 60 countries—was forced, against the express wishes of the school and local community, to cede a wing of its building to a public military school.
Every citizen should oppose the presence of the military in our public schools. Here are four reasons why:
1. Public education is a civilian, not a military, system.
Public education in a democracy aims to broadly prepare youth for full participation in civil society so that they can make informed decisions about their lives and the future of society as a whole. The Department of the Defense has a dramatically more constrained goal in our schools: influencing students to “choose” a military career. The military requires submissiveness and lock-step acquiescence to authority, while a broad education for democratic living emphasizes curiosity, skepticism, diversity of opinion, investigation, initiative, courage to take an unpopular stand, and more. This distinction—of a civilian, not a militarized, public education system—is one for which earlier generations fought.
During WW I, national debates took place over whether or not to include “military training” in secondary schools. Dr. James Mackenzie, a school director, argued, in a remarkably resonant piece published in the New York Times in 1916: “If American boys lack discipline, by all means, let us supply it, but not through a training whose avowed aim is human slaughter.” In 1917 a report issued by the Department of the Interior pointed out that “in no country in the world do educators regard military instruction in the schools as a successful substitute for the well-established systems of physical training and character building.” And in 1945 high school students in New York held public discussions about “universal military training” in schools, where some, an article noted, expressed “fears that universal military training would indicate to the world that we had a ‘chip on our shoulders.’”
2. Military programs and schools are selectively targeted.
Professor Pauline Lipman of the University of Illinois at Chicago has documented that Chicago’s public military academies, along with other schools offering limited educational choices, are located overwhelmingly in low income communities of color, while schools with rich curriculums including magnet schools, regional gifted centers, classical schools, IB programs and college prep schools are placed in whiter, wealthier communities, and in gentrifying areas. In other words, it’s no accident that Senn High School was forced to house a military school, while a nearby selective admission high school was not. This is a Defense Department strategy—target schools where students are squeezed out of the most robust opportunities, given fewer options, and perceived, then, as more likely to enlist; recruit the most susceptible intensively, with false promises and tactics that include bribes, gifts, home visits, mailings, harassment, free video games promoting the glories of war and offering chances to “kill,” and more. Indeed, the Defense Department spends as much as $2.6 billion each year on recruiting.
3. Military schools and programs promote obedience and conformity.
Mayor Daley’s claim that “[military programs] provide… students with the order and discipline that is too often lacking at home” taps into and fuels racialized perceptions and fears of unruly black and brown families and youth. They must be controlled., regulated, and made docile for their own good and for ours. An authentic commitment to the futures of these kids would involve, for a start, offering exactly what the most privileged youngsters have: art education, including dance, music instruction, theater and performance, and the visual arts, sports and physical education, clubs and games, after-school opportunities, science and math labs, lower teacher-student ratios, smaller schools, and more. . Instead, to take one important example, a recent study by the Illinois Arts Council reports that in the city of Chicago, arts programs are distributed in the same way as the other rich educational offerings —white, wealthy communities have them, while low income communities of color have few or none.
A 16 year old student attending the naval academy in Chicago said in an interview in the Chicago Tribune: “When people see that we went to a military school, they know we’re obedient, we follow directions, we’re disciplined.” She understood and accurately described the qualities her school aims to develop—unquestioning rule-following.
4. Military schools and programs promote and practice discrimination.
Although the Chicago Board of Education, City of Chicago, Cook County, and the State of Illinois all prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, the United States Military condones discrimination against lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men. Promoters of these schools and programs are willfully ignoring the fact that queer students attending these schools can’t access military college benefits or employment possibilities, and that queer teachers can’t be hired to serve as JROTC instructors in these schools. This double standard should not be tolerated. Following the courageous examples of San Francisco and Portland, Chicago should refuse to do business with organizations that discriminate against its citizens.
Military schools and programs depend on logics of racism, conquest, misogyny and homophobia. Military schools need unruly youth of color to turn into soldiers, and they need queers and girls as the shaming contrasts against which those soldiers will be created. In other words, soldiers aren’t sissies and they aren’t pussies, either. These disparagements are used as behavior regulators in military settings. Military public schools are a problem, not simply because “don’t ask don’t tell” policies restrict the access of queers to full participation in the military, but because these schools require the active, systematic, and visible disparagement and destruction of queerness and queer lives. We reject the idea that queers should organize for access to the military that depends on our revilement for its existence, rather than for the right to privacy, the right to public life, and the right to life free from militarism.
We live in a city awash in the randomly, tragically spilled blood of our children. We live, all of us, in a violent nation that is regularly spilling the blood of other children, elsewhere. It sickens us to think of students marching and growing comfortable with guns.