Many a folk I have seen these last few days redirecting to Maria Kalman’s blog at the NYT discussing the lives of soldiers in these modern times. Take a moment to look it over.
You notice the oath at the beginning, the “soldier’s oath” as it is called? That’s the military version of the standard loyalty oath for this country, the one issued to government officials and employees who are charged with the responsibilities and duties that affect the lives of other citizens.
It is similar to the oath public school teachers are asked to take. And as a former teacher I took exception to the wording of this oath.
In particular, to the phrase “uphold and defend the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.” Defend how? What enemies, and who decides? Who will dictate and interpret how I will carry out this oath?
These questions haunted me. I was about to enter a classroom and be charged with the moral, ethical, emotional, and intellectual education of young minds, and yet I was also being asked to take an oath to defend the constitution from potential enemies. Would my students and their beliefs be the enemies I was to address in battle? Would I find myself advocating on their behalf against the administration and parents in battles over their constitutional freedoms?
If it sounds like I am making light of this, trust me, I am not. When I was first confronted with this oath I was nearing my 25th birthday. The Cold War was very much with us, communists were still a major threat to our way of life in some people’s minds. I studied the language of that oath hard, recognizing it for what it was: a contract. Above all else I was expected to do – the lesson plans and hall monitoring, the classroom displays and parent conferences – I was being told up front that nothing was more important that defending and upholding the tenants of our country’s founding document.
And I couldn’t do it. At least not the way it was worded.
If it weren’t for my youthful idealism – that same idealism that drives people into the military – I would not have gone into teaching in the first place. It was that same idealism that finally pushed me to modify the language of the oath before signing it and handing it in with my first contract. I crossed out “uphold and defend” and wrote in “teach and explain,” and crossed out “enemies” and wrote in “students” so in the end the line read:
I swear to teach and explain the Constitution of the United States to all students, foreign and domestic…
There was a chance they would not allow any alteration of the wording, or more likely, that they simply wouldn’t hire me for fear of my being a troublemaker. But my papers were accepted without question.
As I read Maria Kalman’s piece I found myself getting angrier and angrier for all the attention the military receives for its efforts that our education does not. Soldiers are trained not to walk blindly through a doorway but we expect our teachers to enter hostile territory every day. Where is the specialized training that prepares teachers to “defend” this Constitution? How are teachers expected to “uphold” our rights to free speech when they themselves are denied it in the classroom? And who determines which of our students are enemies of the state?
Our teachers get no holiday in memorial for their services, they get no body armor or trauma centers thoguh they are expected to enter war zones and accept combat pay, they are not given the latest tools in their defense, nor does their funding come with the same priority as our military. Yet every soldier serving in defense of our nation must pass through our educational system first. I would hope that our public education system was something more than the childcare center for future soldiers, instilling within them the basics of order and discipline and the basic training necessary to become fighting, non-thinking machines, but I fear that is all we have become.
The argument for our current war is that if we do not fight the enemy abroad we will be forced to fight them at home. The fact is, the enemy is here. The enemy is fear and ignorance. And we will never be successful abroad unless we can prove to be successful at home.
I’d like to see our military spend more time defending and upholding the Constitution here at home.