The Value of an Education

Mary Pelzer, Civilian

Mary Pelzer, Civilian

As a society, we have placed a premium on education. It is seen as transformative, able to elevate people out of difficult circumstances, and the catalyst for improvement in both individuals and communities. Today, in the United States, education is a fundamental quality-of-life issue. But the ways in which our culture discusses education are highly limited.

Most references to education are meant to specifically connote a college education. In places like New York City, an education usually means a graduate degree, like a PhD, MD, JD or MBA. When education is discussed in the Northeast, it rarely includes training, apprenticeships, or skill acquisition. It instead refers generally to the broad range of liberal arts subjects covered in the robust American university system. Deliberately using the term “education” as a code for a four-year degree is harmful to society and especially in one that has such a large military/civilian divide.

I have repeatedly heard three dangerous assumptions from civilians concerning education and people who join the military: one, that most join the military as a way to avoid college; two being the opposite argument, that the working poor join the military for college tuition provided by the GI Bill; or three, that it takes a lack of education to remain in the military – that it is a skill-less job that anyone can do.   These are dangerous assumptions that are nearly always incorrect. In fact, joining the military means constant training and education. Instead of seeing the Military as education avoidance, we should see the Department of Defense as one of the largest providers of education in the United States.

The majority of the American population does not qualify for military service. Putting aside age or disability, most Americans fail to meet the basic standards required for enlistment. Given America’s obesity epidemic, many fail the basic physical requirements to join any branch of the military. Moreover, many cannot pass the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), a series of aptitude tests used to measure a person’s potential academic and occupational success within the military. The military administers this test to more than one million applicants annually. One must pass these tests to enlist. The ASVAB covers a multitude of subjects, including science, mathematics, reading comprehension, spacial reasoning, mechanical comprehension, and electronics.  Anyone who doubts the rigorous nature of these tests, take a practice exam online and report your score.

That people join the military to earn the right for college funds, only serves to prove the point that many who join the military desire a higher education and wish to pursue a degree at some point in their life. The fact that they choose not to go to university immediately after high school, do not qualify for a scholarship that would make their college free, or that they choose not to enter into massive debt to obtain a degree, shows a degree of thoughtfulness on their part as to how to accomplish their personal, professional, and educational goals.  

Third, even if a service member joins the military because of a lack of interest in college, it does not necessarily mean that they lack an interest in learning or mastering a subject. Every service member, even the most junior enlisted, is subject to formal training beyond boot camp. In fact, on-the-job education in the military is nearly constant.  The military encourages advancement through training and more formal university education.  Unlike any other department in our government, the military has numerous universities. Each branch of the service has academies, all of which are considered some of the finest in our country. Who would not put West Point and Annapolis on par with our Ivy League schools? Many branches of the service also have graduate schools, like the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island or the Naval Postgraduate School in California. And all of the branches of service encourage their most promising leadership to take advantage of programs that send a select few to receive advanced civilian degrees at some of the country’s most prominent universities as a means of advancing their military careers.

Finally, if you look at any Veteran’s DD-214, a service member’s one-page certificate of discharge from active duty, a prominent feature of the form is item number 14, Military Education. The form notes that education can take place over days, weeks, months or years and lists every training and course taken and passed by the service member.  In a service member’s one-page summary of their time in the military, education is as prominent a box as military decorations.

With its vital emphasis on education, the military should be seen as one of the greatest providers of education and leadership training in the United States and not a way to avoid college. The formality of training could serve no higher purpose: failure to master the task at hand could result in someone’s death or maiming or defeat against a foreign enemy. Certainly, the consequences of failing these tests are greater than flunking any requirements course exam at your local liberal arts college.