January 29, 2007

Why Kids Still Enlist…and Some Alternatives

Last week I posted a piece about this topic at Fire on the Mountain, and it was cross-posted at Daily Kos. I got several thoughtful responses that got me thinking more systematically, and here’s some of what I came up with.

The students I counsel come from poor or working class neighborhoods, under-resourced schools and over-stressed families. For many reasons, most of them are not high achievers academically. This is not at all to say that they aren’t bright, especially when you take in to account what we in the ed biz call ”multiple intelligences”—spatial, visual, physical/kinesthetic etc. Many are classified in special education, due to minor or major learning disabilities or emotional problems, and even the regular education kids I see are mostly not cognitively oriented to book-learning but to hands-on stuff. Nobody but the US military is banging on the doors to get access to them; they don’t have a lot of options..

Most of the conversations I’m recounting here occur in the context of one-on-one or small group counseling sessions, where I as a social worker am charged with helping students consider their futures in terms of their own values, strengths, resources and goals. This is obviously very different from a classroom or hallway presentation and discussion on the military or any other topic. It allows for a deeper dialogue where I can only respond to them honestly as who I am with my history and values. It would be phoney for me to feign “objectivity,” or “neutrality”—kids really don’t like that-- and not probe a comment that seems problematic, or not give an honest opinion when asked. At the same time, I believe it would be ethically wrong for me or any adult staff working with kids to preach at them or lay heavy trips and manifestos on them, which can stifle the young person’s own self-reflection and clarification process.

Some of the special ed kids have reported pitches from recruiters (to whom they’re sometimes steered by desperate parents) about special help in getting their diplomas, or being sent to boot camps where they’ll get high school diplomas, but I haven’t been able to track this down. I don’t know if there’s some conscious targeting of special ed kids to as recruitment numbers head south.

Living in a War Every Day

My students have few illusions about the US government and its motives. But they’re very willing to believe that other countries and peoples hate “us” because that jibes with their lived experience of hostility and anger all around them. Even those young people drawn to the military don’t see themselves as going somewhere to save other people or spread democracy. That’s not in their values hierarchy. They’re too worried about their own survival and they have reason to be. Their most compelling motive is to avoid getting killed on the streets of Harlem or East New York or the South Bronx, or rotting in jail.

And they do value protecting their families and friends, which is another pull toward the military. Some will still say that Saddam Hussein blew up the World Trade Center, “so we had to go get him.” That Big Lie technique works very well and is hard to combat.

Many of my students have little experience of peace and the possibility of living without constantly watching your back. Some will even say they feel like they’re living in a war now; kill or be killed is just the natural order of things. Within this frame they do articulate clear ethical standards. One student told me that he had re-considered his interest in the military after reading about the GIs charged with murdering a family in Mahmoudiyah. “I knew about the fighting and killing,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with that. But it’s the executions that got me. ‘Cause what if I don’t wanna go along with it? Then they could execute me too.”


As for alternatives…Some students would do well in a college setting with a lot of structured supports, mentoring, and part-time work so they won’t feel totally dependent and infantilized. They want to be supporting themselves financially and contributing to their families. I haven’t figured out how they can get that, except if they go to a college where I know some supportive professors and student activists.

For those who actually can’t hack college’s academic demands, or who just are emotionally not ready for it, learning a trade that will utilize their talents, hold their interest and pay decently would be a good option.

The NYC Department of Education in its infinite wisdom has closed most of the vocational high schools. However, due to one of the great and under-appreciated people’s victories of the 20th century, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the kids with serious enough learning disabilities can get free training and placement assistance in occupations like building maintenance, cooking, barbering, welding etc.

Unfortunately, some of the trades where my students could shine do have somewhat exclusionary policies. For example, many of the craft unions which were forced by affirmative action to admit women and people of color, now demand that apprentices obtain an associates degree as part of reaching the “master” level. Carpenters, plumbers and electricians require grades and scores on statewide mathematics exams that are difficult for educationally under-privileged students to attain. I wonder whether these are really necessary to perform the trade (I had a plumber uncle who amazed architects and engineers because he executed the most duct and pipe systems without blueprints and measurements—just by eye) or just serve as gatekeepers against non-white people. Other trades, such as welding, give a licensing exam which is totally hands-on rather than pencil and paper, and therefore more accessible to many of my students.

Students Seeking Peace

While dealing with external needs and demands, some students do actively seek inner peace, and struggle against living in negativity and anger—often through religious faith or focusing on some compelling activity where they can get into a “flow” state.” One young woman whose rage at an abusive and emotionally immature mother left her often unable to concentrate on school told me that she had taken up knitting at a cousin’s suggestion. “Now when my mother comes and yells at me I can keep knitting and not get into it with her—I just kinda listen and keep knitting. It’s addictive! I wanna do it all the time.”

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