Wednesday, January 04, 2012

US Military

One important analogy is the U.S. military, which I think has a lot of lessons for our schools – both are enormously large, sprawling bureaucracies, but one is, by far, the best in the world, while the other is, at best, middle of the pack.  And the U.S. military wasn't always this way – after Vietnam, it was a broken, demoralized institution, just like our schools today.  How did it turn itself around?  What are the lessons we can apply to our schools?  If someone reading this wants to research this and write up something on it, I'll fund it!


I wrote in April (


You might wonder why I'm sending around an article about treating battlefield injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan – the reason is that I think the U.S. educational system can learn a great deal from the U.S. military.  Both are among the largest government systems in the world, with millions of employees, yet one is dismal, trailing most other developed countries, while the other is HIGHLY effective.  It's remarkable to see how the military learns the lessons from the front lines and spreads the learning rapidly – something that doesn't happen at all in education.  Perhaps this is because people die quickly if the military doesn't learn and adapt, whereas the carnage from our failing educational system isn't as visible and directly attributable (it's so easy to blame the victims, after all)


Nick Kristof with a great article on Our Lefty Military (

Yet if we seek another model, one that emphasizes universal health care and educational opportunity, one that seeks to curb income inequality, we don't have to turn to Sweden. Rather, look to the United States military.

You see, when our armed forces are not firing missiles, they live by an astonishingly liberal ethos — and it works. The military helped lead the way in racial desegregation, and even today it does more to provide equal opportunity to working-class families — especially to blacks — than just about any social program. It has been an escalator of social mobility in American society because it invests in soldiers and gives them skills and opportunities.

The United States armed forces knit together whites, blacks, Asians and Hispanics from diverse backgrounds, invests in their education and training, provides them with excellent health care and child care. And it does all this with minimal income gaps: A senior general earns about 10 times what a private makes, while, by my calculation, C.E.O.'s at major companies earn about 300 times as much as those cleaning their offices. That's right: the military ethos can sound pretty lefty.

"It's the purest application of socialism there is," Wesley Clark, the retired four-star general and former supreme allied commander of NATO forces in Europe, told me. And he was only partly joking.

"It's a really fair system, and a lot of thought has been put into it, and people respond to it really well," he added. The country can learn from that sense of mission, he said, from that emphasis on long-term strategic thinking.

The military is innately hierarchical, yet it nurtures a camaraderie in part because the military looks after its employees. This is a rare enclave of single-payer universal health care, and it continues with a veterans' health care system that has much lower costs than the American system as a whole.

Perhaps the most impressive achievement of the American military isn't its aircraft carriers, stunning as they are. Rather, it's the military day care system for working parents.

While one of America's greatest failings is underinvestment in early childhood education (which seems to be one of the best ways to break cycles of poverty from replicating), the military manages to provide superb child care. The cost depends on family income and starts at $44 per week.

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