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What Do War And Teaching Have In Common?

June 29, 2011, 2:55 pm

In the last year I have been reading non-fiction accounts of the Iraq and Afghanistan war. My current favorites are journalist Sebastian Junger’s War (2010); Jon Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory:  The Odyssey of Pat Tillman (2009); Rhodes scholar and West Point vet Craig Mullaney’s The Unforgiving Minute:  A Soldier’s Education (2010); and currently I am immersed in Joker One:  A Marine Platoon’s Story of Courage, Leadership and Brotherhood by Donovan Campbell, a decorated Marine veteran who did three tours following his graduation from Princeton.  (Readers are encouraged leave their own favorite reads in the comments.)  In addition to learning something about soldiers’ experiences in two wars that have lasted for a decade now, I have learned a great deal from these books about teaching.  I  have come to what some might see as a peculiar conclusion that a college-level classroom teacher has a great deal to learn from the reflections of a platoon commander who has trained for, and been in, combat.

The portions of these books I am least interested in are the detailed battle scenes I liked best when I was younger and eager to recover the history of past wars through fiction and memoir.  I grew up during another war:  the endless tragedy in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.  In my teens, as I read what I could about late twentieth century United States imperialism, I also discovered war writers like Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Vera Brittain, Erich Maria RemarqueLeo Tolstoy, Stephen  Crane, and George Orwell.  How people who were in many cases only a few years older than I rose to the challenge of participating in history-changing events was an endless source of fascination. Looking back on it, the panorama of mass-slaughter has a great deal more attraction for a young person who can neither conceive of its reality or imagine death and dismemberment as an individual experience.  Now in middle age I can imagine the reality these things:  sections of books that are about battles in ongoing wars, where casualties occasionally spike and are caused by crude bombs blowing bodies, are often hard to read with any dispassion, and I tend to move through them more quickly than I should (although I will admit that I did pause long enough to become very emotional during the battle scenes when Mullaney and Campbell’s platoons suffered their first casualties.)

But without knowing it, these books have the unexpected effect of causing me to think about my teaching in a new way because there is a tremendous amount of teaching that  is done on a daily basis in a modern military. One of my new insights — drawn from Mullaney and Campbell’s accounts of preparing their platoons for war and leading them into battle — is that in fact the primary task of a second lieutenant, the most junior officer there is, is to teach.  From this follows other crucial responsibilities that fall into the category of “leadership”:  making decisions quickly, correctly and in a way that inspires confidence; connecting enlisted soldiers to, and protecting them from the errors of, other officers higher up in the command structure; selecting good leaders for smaller units within the platoon and nurturing them; maintaining good morale; and taking responsibilities for any and all failures of the entire platoon.

University teachers rarely have to be concerned about life and death in the classroom:  that is a blessing.  But what do warriors have to teach us about teaching?  Campbell recalls in Joker One that the best weapon he has is “a sharp and flexible mind combined with a decisive and creative mind-set.”  Like working in a classroom, the best and most minutely outlined lecture is no substitute for being able to teach the students who happened to walk into the room that day in whatever mood they are in; to respond to an opportunity to teach what you wanted to teach in a better way that has suddenly become apparent; or to respond to contentious situation in the classroom in a way that can produce a different lesson entirely.  Similarly, as Campbell trains his platoon for deployment, he and his fellow junior officers work to persuade their men “that they now had great worth in our eyes, that their input was always necessary and important, and that everyone…respected them enough to take their thoughts seriously.”

What better ethic to carry into the classroom?  Similarly, Mullaney’s book, which tracks his career from West Point plebe through his return from Afghanistan, is a wonderful meditation on success and failure.  He argues that successful combat officers offer a combination of education to the task, critical thinking skills, preparation, and a care for others that surpassed care for him or herself, a perfect formula for classroom success if you ask me.  Hence, I found myself interrupting a student last year who was on thin ice in one of my classes, as s/he apologized profusely for the numerous lapses that appeared to be leading to an F:  ”If you fail this class, I will consider it my failure, not yours. I will have failed to teach you. Now, what are we going to do about it?”  The student’s astonishment was immediate: “Oh, but that’s not true!” s/he responded.  ”You’re a great teacher.”  But clearly, on a certain level, that was not a good evaluation of our relationship:  as I had been doing other things (for example, chatting happily in office  hours with students who were volunteering to be taught), this student had been going down the drain.  And this exchange was, in fact, jolted the student’s narrative in a productive way:  I explained that I was interested in teaching hir as much as I possibly could in the time remaining, and that we would develop a program to do that.  And we did.

While this may seem overly dramatic to some of you, it is literally the case:  I don’t think that acknowledging it supersedes other possible truths — that the student hasn’t been working, or that the student didn’t bring the skills to the work in the first place that it might have required.  I also realize this is a tricky conversation to have.  Many of us teach in situations where we have little control over the circumstances that condition the learning process for students and are being asked to be almost entirely “accountable” for the “outcomes.”  What I am trying to do now is to hold two truths in my head at the same time:  that I can be a great teacher — and that when a student fails, it is my failure too.

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