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April 29, 2003
Drinks with Antoine (2) the educational impact of the armed forces (and especially the US armed forces)

Antoine told me that in his opinion the much crowed about ignorance of American adolescents (where's Iraq, what's its capital, etc.) compared to their European equivalents may now have disappeared. Quite what his evidence or reason for thinking this was I can't tell you, either because he didn't tell me, or because he did but my drink-befuddled brain spat it out immediately.

But this got me thinking. If Antoine is right, why is he right? One reason might be the decline of military service in Europe compared to the USA. Remember that piece I did about how the British Army educates? And remember that little Three Week War we've just watched on our tellies? I reckon that a society with lots of military activity in its midst is, other things being equal, likely to be a better educated one.

This is because, in my opinion, soldiers tend to be better at teaching than teachers, and ex-soldiers tend to make better teachers than regular teacher-teachers, other things being equal. This, also in my opinion, is not because soldiers are any less stupid than teachers. It is because military discipline is now much better than civilian school discipline. Both may have slipped a little in recent decades, but regular school discipline has slipped more.

Plus, I think soldiers teach better because handling kit or preparing for an operation which if mishandled might kill you or your mates concentrates the mind wonderfully. What were all those soldiers who just won the Three Week War doing for the previous six months before their Three Weeks of glory? Learning, that's what. They didn't know it was going to be so easy, and it only was because they assumed it might not be. So they really paid attention to their teachers and did their homework properly. They'll spend the rest of their lives that much better educated than they'd otherwise have been. And that much better at teaching.

The phrase "learning experience" is usually an American euphemism for a screw-up. But preparing for, and then fighting the Three Week War really was that, I'd say.

Even more significant may be the enormous size, compared to all others, of the current US Navy. Navies teach obsessively, because if you mishandle a ship that can get very nasty, and very expensive. And that's true all the time, not just when war looms.

Submarines, in particular, are floating academies of extreme excellence and intensity. Remember that character that Sean Connery played in The Hunt for Red October? He was known as the "Vilnius Schoolmaster". Well, the Vilnius Schoolmaster is teaching no more.

This is not an argument for every country having regular wars or a huge navy, on educational grounds. As I said about the Baccalauriat thing in the first of these two Antoine postings, I'm just saying.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:58 PM
Category: This and that
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"War is God's way of teaching Americans geography," -- Ambrose Bierce, 1915

(I think American nuclear sumbmaines are just amazing things. They, and not the aircraft carriers, are the real miracles of the US navy, and of course they do contain some of the best people in the US armed forces. Interestingly enough, when I mentioned US navy submarines on my blog, it turned out that one of my regular readers had served on one, and he thus told me various interesting things about them. He mentioned somewhere else that his present job is "principally teaching" but I am not sure if this is in our out of the armed forces. The blogosphere is a wonderful thing).

Comment by: Michael Jennings on April 30, 2003 10:16 AM

I recently read somewhere (It may even have been here) that the state only began poking it's nose into education in the 1890s not out of any "concern for the nation's children" type guff but because church schools would not teach military drill. What goes around comes around!

Comment by: mark holland on April 30, 2003 03:42 PM

Australia's schools were all church run until about 1880, at which point most of the run of the mill protestant schools were nationalised. (The poshest of Anglican schools remained and remain under church control). The Catholic schools remained church controlled. One of the compromises on which the nation was founded was that the Catholic church would retain control over their schools, but that the government would fund them, and this remains the case to this day. (Given that Australia is about 35% Catholic, this is a bit deal). I am not in favour of state funding of religious schools in general, but sometimes things like this exist for historical reasons and don't do much harm. (The existence of state funded Jewish schools in the UK is similar, although on a much smaller scale). The trouble is they can set a precedend. If every relgious and ethnic group demands its own state government schools, you have a problem.

Comment by: Michael Jennings on April 30, 2003 11:34 PM
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