Friday, February 08, 2008

Educational bias against military veterans

When Sean Lunde enrolled at the University of Massachusetts at Boston in 2005, he expected his four years of training and experience as an Army medic in Kosovo, Germany, and Iraq would earn him as much as 50 college credits, or about a year and a half of courses. He received none. "I went to medic school for 12 hours a day, six days a week, for four months," he said. "None of that was accepted."

When recruiting, the military highlights its educational advantages, promising young men and women that service will give them a leg up toward a college degree and a better career. But many of the thousands of veterans who attend college after tours of duty are denied credit for military courses and specialized skills despite an accreditation system set up to award it, veterans' advocates and students say. That forces students to take more courses than they expected to, straining already thin GI Bill benefits.

In response to veterans' criticism, colleges say they are fairly evaluating military courses and that a good deal of service training does not match with academic subjects. But in the minds of veterans, the denial of credits casts doubt on the academic qualifications of their military training, coursework, and specialties. That leaves many feeling bitter and disillusioned. "When I went into the military, they told us we would get credit for military experience," Lunde said. "But hardly anyone I know that served gets the credits they thought they deserved. So it hasn't worked out like I expected."

The issue is an increasing point of tension on campuses as waves of veterans return from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and enroll in college, taking advantage of a range of public benefits and hoping to build on skills acquired during their service. The military offers a wide range of educational opportunities to service members, and has created a comprehensive, if complicated, system that translates military courses, training, and occupations into potential college credit. The American Council on Education, the chief coordinating body for higher education institutions, acts as a kind of accrediting agency for the armed forces. It assigns civilian academics to evaluate military courses and duties and make recommendations for how much credit should be awarded.

Veterans also contend that military training and jobs that correlate to academic subjects deserve as much credit as coursework, just as many college students receive course credits through internships. For example, veterans say a stint as an Army cook should earn credit for a culinary arts program; and a sergeant supervising 100 soldiers should receive credit in business management.

That evaluation process, which military officials describe as rigorous and fair, documents soldiers' skills and responsibilities and recommends how much college credit they should receive. While colleges widely recognize the transcripts, they are not bound to honor them, and those who work closely with veterans say many colleges award the credits arbitrarily. "Many people handling transfers aren't aware of it and don't know how to do it, so they just don't accept it," said Louis Martini, director of military education at Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey and president of the Council of College and Military Educators. "It's a problem that comes up a lot."

Such hurdles lead many veterans to attend colleges known to be "military friendly" to maximize their credits, military education specialists say. These colleges usually belong to Servicemembers Opportunity Colleges, a Washington, D.C., consortium of 1,800 schools dedicated to helping service members receive college degrees.

Surveys by the American Council on Education found that 14 percent of colleges and universities do not award any military credit, and 30 percent do not award credit for occupational experiences, just for coursework. Colleges that do not award credit for military training contend that most service-related experience is incompatible with academic programs. "We don't have a process for evaluating [military service] for credit," said Kathleen Teehan, vice chancellor for enrollment management at UMass-Boston. "I think that's fairly standard." The school does consider giving former service members credit for academic classes taken while in the military that were offered through accredited colleges.

Jeffrey Cropsey, director of Defense Activity for Non-Traditional Education Support, which oversees education in the Department of Defense, said that while some veterans are frustrated by colleges' denials, overall they saved an estimated $141 million last year in tuition costs through credits earned during service. "The devil is in getting the information out," he said. "Some academic advisers are fairly junior people who are not totally conversant with the system, especially if they aren't near a military base."

But Jack Mordente, director of veterans' affairs at Southern Connecticut State University, and a former president of the National Association of Veterans' Programs Administrators, criticized the military for exaggerating the amount of academic credit veterans will receive. "Students have the expectation that they are going to walk into college and get all sorts of credit, and it just doesn't happen," he said. "I really think the problem is in what they are being told." Mordente and other college administrators said a good deal of military training is too technical to transfer to a college program.

Bill Blanchard, 26, a Framingham State College business student, left for basic training just before his senior year at American University. While in the Army, he took intensive classes in Army psychological operations, which American later refused to accept for credit. "A marketing student would be very jealous of our training, and yet I didn't get a single class. They told me I was misinformed." Unwilling to continue at American, he transferred to Framingham State, which accepted most of his military classes toward his degree. Blanchard completed his degree and returned to active duty.

Donald Morrison, 28, an Army reservist from Brookline who worked in logistics during a 2004 tour in Iraq, said UMass-Boston rejected his request for transfer credit, although the American Council on Education contends that his training should count toward a management or business administration degree. "Veterans assume they are going to get taken care of when they get back to school, and so does the general public," he said. "But they're not."


Democrats find history awkward

Last month, I received a handwritten letter from George W. Bush. He had read my book "A Magnificent Catastrophe," on the race that put Thomas Jefferson in the White House. "I think you did a magnificent job capturing the 1800 election," Mr. Bush wrote. "I appreciate your contribution to history." It turns out that Mr. Bush isn't only a student of history, he also sympathizes with Jefferson, a president the Democratic Party traditionally counts as one of its own. I envisioned Mr. Bush identifying more with the conservative incumbent defeated in 1800 -- John Adams. From his comments, though, Mr. Bush had closely read the book.

I shared this letter with a historian at Yale, the president's alma mater, who told me that Mr. Bush regularly reads history and has invited historians from Yale and elsewhere to the White House for informal discussions. Apparently, Karl Rove introduced the president to the joys of history.

This episode reminded me of an inquiry posed last fall by a respected public radio producer. After interviewing me for a program on campaign history, he asked me to suggest prominent Democrats who might comment for the show. He wanted the views of a few politicians to compliment those of historians, but he could only think of Republicans who knew much about history.

Having once worked for Congress, I started running through its members in my head. Various Republicans sprang to mind, but no living Democrats. Finally I hit on former Sen. George McGovern as probable and a couple of others as possible, but it was tough.

A few days later a journalist asked me this question: Why do conservatives like history more than liberals? Most historians vote Democratic, I assured him, but I realized that there might be something to his query. The current Republican candidates for president often refer to past presidents from both parties, he noted, while the Democratic candidates rarely do. (Barack Obama has expressed admiration for Illinois Republican Abraham Lincoln and the inspirational leadership of John F. Kennedy.)

At one time, Democrats everywhere staged Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinners to honor their party's founders much like Republican still hold Lincoln Day Dinners. Democrats now keep their founders at arm's length. Jefferson may have written that all men are created equal, but he owned slaves and allegedly sired children by a black woman he never freed. Even worse, although Andrew Jackson personified popular democracy and battled the national bank, he not only owned slaves but ordered the massacre and removal of Native Americans. Last week, I attended a performance in Los Angeles of "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," an edgy rock musical clearly not written by conservatives. The printed program posed the question implicit throughout the show, "Was Old Hickory a great president or an American Hitler?" If this is how they view it, no wonder liberal Democrats don't dwell on their party's past.

For the party faithful, there are a lot more blemishes on the Democratic record. The spokesman for the modern Democratic reform impulse, William Jennings Bryan, ended his life battling the teaching of evolution. The progressive standard-bearer Woodrow Wilson was also a notorious racist who led the country into World War I. Franklin Delano Roosevelt instigated the internment of Japanese Americans as well as the New Deal. Lyndon Johnson brought us the Vietnam War in addition to Civil Rights legislation and Medicare. In a liberal historian's tableau of American history, these are the party's jewels whose half steps forward marked the nation's democratic progress.

Liberal Democrats have always looked to the future with hope and embraced marginalized groups. When they look back, even to the deeds of their own former leaders, they see trails of tears like the one over which Andrew Jackson drove out the Cherokee. Blemishes on past presidents, even those who pointed the way toward future progress, tend to stain them wholly for at least some key elements within the Democratic coalition.

In contrast, conservative Republicans look to the past for inspiration but often to the future with trepidation. Originalists at heart, they tend to see only the shining city on a hill of earlier times and not its darker neighborhoods. George Washington's slaves are forgotten along with Adams's Alien and Sedition Acts. For some Republicans, both Lincoln and Robert E. Lee become models of Christian virtue as if they never ordered millions of men into battle against the other. As his letter to me suggests, even Mr. Bush can embrace Jefferson by selecting aspects of the third president's character and career. Our political leaders can best learn from history by appreciating its rich complexity. We are served neither by its neglect nor by its uncritical adulation.


Farting follow-up

Post below lifted from Taranto. See the original for links

Yesterday's Zero-Tolerance Watch highlighted a story in the Knox County (Maine) Times about a school that had banned "intentional farting." Reader Bruce Kyle writes to tell us the Times got the story badly wrong:
As the father of an eighth-grade boy at Camden-Rockport Middle School, I regretfully report that your Zero Tolerance Watch entry yesterday regarding a ban on intentional flatulence is in error. The source for the Knox County Times story, Fire Cracker, is not the school newsletter, but a gag sheet written by eighth-grade girls, published and distributed around school for the first time last week. While their intention (civilizing future prom dates) was good, their attempt at advocacy journalism blew up in their faces, so to speak.

CRMS Principal Maria Libby addressed the national attention this story has received with good humor and a touch of seriousness regarding ethics for budding journalists yesterday in the school's actual newsletter, Tuesday Times.

According to my son, what happened is this: A boy cut the cheese with considerable volume in science class. This resulted in extended hilarity, followed by mimicking (hand in the armpit, etc), and--when the conditions were right--real farts delivered with much bravado. The teacher merely informed the boys that this sort of intentional disruption would, like all intentional disruptions, earn a detention.

What's interesting at this point is that Knox County Times continues to trumpet the impact their story has had as a triumph, without acknowledging the absurd source and the fact that it simply isn't true. Apparently, 13-year-old boys aren't the only ones who take pride in their stinkers.

But there is a saving grace to this embarrassing story. Kyle writes: "I forwarded your comment to Mrs. Libby. She tells me that your 'students are discouraged from trying to pass' is among her favorite one-liners to come out of this episode."

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