The XX Factor

Going Back to School

It looks like the war on terror might not reshape just how Americans fight overseas, but also how academics fight in the classroom. Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy has been writing about the influx of vets who served in Iraq and Afghanistan into Middle Eastern studies programs in the United States. Lynch’s remarks hint at a fear among some academics that this new wave of presumably pro-government, pro-gun students might shift international studies departments to the right. If there’s one thing international types are not prepared to handle, it’s conservatives in the academy. (This coming from a girl who went to school in Oklahoma.)

But if they’re smart, academics will embrace these ” nontraditional students ,” who will be entering programs with something that’s rare (but not unheard of) among career students: actual experience in the countries they are studying . As an international studies major at a school smack-dab in the middle of America, I wasn’t exposed to very many students who had lived or worked abroad for more than a semester. (And really, at 19, how many people have been?) As a result, I was always grateful for the voices in classroom discussions of people who had significant international experience-soldiers just back from Afghanistan, Iranian-American women who spent summers in Tehran, Lebanese guys who laughed at my Arabic. They provided far more than homework help, although there was some of that, too: They offered a limited-but authentic-perspective on what life was like in the places we were studying. Sometimes their politics made me cringe, but their stories, arguments, and analyses added depth to our discussions that wouldn’t have been there had our conversations been predicated on reading assignments alone.

Civilian institutions-think tanks, congressional committees, universities-need contributors with all sorts of on-the-ground experience, including military service. And as war-making becomes increasingly indistinguishable from nation-building, the military needs well-educated officers who understand the historical, cultural, and political dynamics of the regions they are operating in. The movement of veterans from Kabul to the Kennedy School should be welcomed by academic administrators and military officials alike. Unlike most wars, this is a win-win situation.

Photograph of a soldier in Iraq by David Furst/Getty Images.