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"What It Means to Be a Citizen" Student Veterans in History Classrooms

Eladio Bobadilla, January 2017

A 1943 poster from the Office for Emergency Management encourages veterans to seek out educational opportunities. Like the GI Bill of 1944, the Post-9/11 GI Bill has expanded access to higher education in the United States. National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia CommonsSince the passage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill in 2008, colleges and universities have seen a steady increase in their veteran populations. Currently, close to one million veterans are enrolled in undergraduate programs across the country, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. The presence of veterans in the college classroom presents a number of opportunities—as well as challenges—for students, instructors, and administrators. Some of these concern all disciplines, but some are especially relevant to the humanities and, specifically, to history.

The best-known challenge is ensuring that veterans enroll in accredited and reputable colleges and universities. Many are enticed to turn over their hard-earned savings and GI Bill benefits to institutions that aren’t accredited or are in danger of losing accreditation, or to questionable for-profit universities. The nearly 7,000 veterans affected by the closing of ITT Technical Institutes are but one example of this problem. Helping veterans find a welcome place in history classrooms includes paying attention to their ability to access higher education in general and the humanities especially. With a focus on job training, for-profit universities generally don’t expose veterans to history. And those veterans who are persuaded to enroll in unaccredited institutions can work hard for credits that will not transfer and even pursue what often amounts to a worthless degree.

But numerous issues affecting veterans, even at the most reputable nonprofit institutions, have generated remarkably little attention. When it comes to the history classroom in particular, too few instructors have made concerted efforts to reach out and listen to veterans or to work deliberately to frame lessons in an inclusive way.

One concern that many veterans and those who work with them raise is the prevalence of stereotypes. Veterans often report that college instructors, administrators, and fellow students have no idea that a quarter of student veterans are women, or assume that veterans are unstable, rigid, and unteachable. “There is no single ‘veterans’ experience,’” says Paul Ortiz, an army veteran, former paratrooper, and currently an associate professor of history at the University of Florida. Yet many veteran students discover that their veteran status carries a stigma on college campuses, and in history and humanities classrooms in particular. Navy veteran Angie Baggoo, a recent graduate of San Diego State University, worries that politically progressive history professors too often view the military and veterans simplistically, as “bad people.”

Stereotypes arising from antiwar views of students and faculty, however enlightened and well intentioned, can mean lost opportunities for dialogue and learning. Navy veteran Paul Park, a graduate of St. John’s University, echoes Baggoo, explaining that conscious or unconscious anti-military and anti-veteran prejudices are both unfair and work against the ideals of a democratic education. “Veterans are often assumed to all suffer from PTSD, to be prone to violence, to be homophobic, and to make crass jokes,” Park says. In reality, he and other veteran students argue, veterans, who often come from working-class backgrounds and have served in diverse units, have a tremendous appreciation for diversity and for the moral, political, and social nuances that make up our complex world.

Paul Ortiz (right), with Alice Freifeld (left) and Lisa Booth, leading the University of Florida’s Humanities and War graduate seminar. “There is no single ‘veterans’ experience,’” says Ortiz. Vedrana DamjanovicThese stereotypes can also discourage veterans from engaging with the humanities. Because critical thinking and empathy aren’t associated with people who are “rigid and unfeeling,” faculty who subscribe to this kind of thinking can assume veterans have little to offer, and veteran students will hear that message. Recent initiatives by the National Endowment for the Humanities aim to change this dynamic, to “promote understanding of the military experience and support veterans through a humanities-based approach.” The NEH’s “Standing Together” initiative includes the project “Dialogues,” which supports discussion groups across the country.

The initiatives, says NEH director of communications Theola DeBose, bring humanities resources—“drawn from history, philosophy, literature, art, and film”—together with veteran testimonies. DeBose hopes the projects will “help us understand the human experience and to consider our obligations to one another.” The NEH programs underscore that listening to veterans can be a powerful teaching and learning strategy, but they also reveal that much work remains to be done in this regard. This will require listening to veteran students to understand what history and the humanities mean to them, and being open to learning from their experiences.

Veterans can be more adept than the general population at thinking critically and appreciating the study of the past. Veteran students returning from war are often hungry to make sense of their service, and history provides tools for them to do so and opportunities for them to teach others. As Michael O’Neil, another Navy veteran and recent graduate of San Diego State University, explains, “After leaving the service, I wanted to learn more about the past and what my time in the military meant and its purpose.” Park similarly argues that “for veterans, studying history helps put in perspective the years spent in uniform.”

It is true, of course, that veterans will likely be accustomed to “highly structured and hierarchical environments,” but for many, the college experience, and the study of history in particular, can be “liberating, if a bit confusing,” as Ortiz says. Coming back from war and sitting in a history classroom can be a therapeutic, insightful, and rewarding experience for veterans. Jimmy Patiño, a historian at the University of Minnesota, learned on the fly that veteran students arrive in college with a deep sense of civic obligation, and he discovered that they “are diverse and their veteran experience does not determine their politics or their learning process.” Patiño notes that his experience with veteran students has “surprised” him and led him to “greatly respect their willingness and insistence on thinking critically about our history and society.”

Veterans also come out of the service with unique and useful skills that have significant pedagogical potential. Ortiz notes that “veterans come to college with experience in geography, technology, and the importance of historical context.” These are often untapped by instructors who are not trained or accustomed to dealing with veterans. As Steve Arionus, a Marine veteran and history PhD candidate at the University of Michigan, points out, veterans can supplement historical instruction, as their experiences “may be able to complicate discussions on topics such as war, politics, and democracy.” Encouraging veterans to participate and to speak about their experiences—to the degree that they are comfortable doing so—should be seen as an instructional tool, as knowledge that instructors can and should solicit. Veterans’ participation in the classroom has the potential to be, as Arionus notes, an enriching experience for everyone there.

If, as the NEH initiatives argue, listening to veterans’ voices is about understanding what we, as citizens, owe to one another, veteran students have much to contribute to the conversations happening in college history classrooms, especially if we understand our discipline as contributing to the goal of mutual social understanding. Veterans, says Arionus, “can speak quite eloquently on the value—and perhaps the cost—of what it means to be a citizen in these United States.” Doing so effectively will require taking seriously the experiences and values of veterans, and reassessing our preconceived notions about who veterans are, what they believe, and what they care about. Ultimately, veterans will strengthen the historical discipline and profession, because they are well positioned to speak about contemporary issues that inform our instruction and inquiry. This is perhaps why there is a long tradition of veterans in the profession. “Think of the military veterans who contributed so much to our historical understanding,” says Ortiz. “E. P. Thompson, Howard Zinn, the list goes on and on.”

Eladio Bobadilla is a PhD candidate in US history at Duke University and a Navy veteran.


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