Child Soldiers: The Military Assault On Chicago’s Public Schools

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In 2001 Chicago’s Mayor, Richard M. Daley commented
on an article in the online journal, Education Next, by
then-Mayor of Oakland, California, Jerry Brown. Brown’s
essay offered a rationale for public military academies in
Oakland. In his letter to the editor, Daley congratulated
Brown’s efforts and explained his own reasons for creating
military schools in Chicago:
”We started these academies because of the success of
our Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps (JROTC)
program, the nation’s largest. JROTC provides students
with the order and discipline that is too often lacking at
home. It teaches them time management, responsibility,
goal setting, and teamwork, and it builds leadership and
Today, Chicago has the most militarized public
school system in the nation, with Cadet Corps for middle-
school kids, over 10,000 students participating in
JROTC, over 1,000 students
enrolled in the five
military high schools, and
hundreds more attending
one of nine “small” military
high schools. Chicago
now has a Marine Military
Academy, a Naval Academy,
and three Army high
schools. When an air force
high school opens next
year, Chicago will be the
only city in the nation to
have academies representing
all branches of the military.
And the public
school systems of other
urban centers with largely
Black and immigrant low
income students including Philadelphia, Atlanta and
Oakland, are being similarly re-formed—and
deformed—through partnerships with the Department
of the Defense.
As military recruiters fall short of their enlistment
goals—a trend spanning a decade—and as the number of
African Americans enlistees (once a reliable and now an
increasingly reluctant source of personnel) has dropped by
41% over the last several years, the Department of the
Defense has partnered with the Department of Education
and city governments, to both sell its “brand” to young
people and to secure positions of power over the lives of
the most vulnerable youth.
The federal No Child Left Behind Act is particularly
aggressive, providing unprecedented military access to
campuses and requiring schools to provide personal
student information to the Army. In many schools
JROTC programs replace physical education courses,
recruiters assist in coaching athletic teams, and the military
is provided space to offer kids a place to hang out
and have a snack after school. And in one case in Chicago,
a largely working class and immigrant public high
school, Senn, was forced to give up a third of its building
to a military academy (check out to
find out more).
It is urgent that every citizen oppose the presence of the
military in our public schools. Here are four reasons why:
Public education in a democracy aims to broadly prepare
youth for full participation in civil society so that they can
make informed decisions about their lives and the future
of society as a whole. The Department of the Defense has
a dramatically more constrained goal in our schools:
influencing students to “choose” a military career. The
military requires submissiveness and lock-step acquiescence
to authority, while a broad education for democratic
living emphasizes curiosity, skepticism, diversity of
opinion, investigation, initiative, courage to take an
unpopular stand, and more. This distinction—of a civilian,
not a militarized, public education system—is one for
which earlier generations fought. For example, during
WW I, national debates took place over whether or not to
include “military training” in secondary schools. James
Mackenzie, a school director, argued, in a remarkably resonant
piece published in the New York Times in 1916: “If
American boys lack discipline, by all means, let us supply
it, but not through a training whose avowed aim is
human slaughter.”
Pauline Lipman, professor of education at the University of
Illinois at Chicago, has documented that Chicago’s public military
academies, along with other schools offering limited educational
choices, are located overwhelmingly in low income
communities of color, while schools with rich curricula
including magnet schools,
regional gifted centers, classical
schools, International Baccalaureate
programs and college
prep schools are placed in
whiter, wealthier communities,
and in gentrifying areas.
In other words, it’s no accident
that Senn High School was
forced to house a military
school, while a nearby selective
admission high school was
not. This is a Defense Department
strategy—target schools
where students are squeezed
out of the most robust opportunities
and perceived, then,
as more likely to enlist; recruit
the most susceptible intensively,
with false promises and tactics that include bribes, home
visits, mailings, harassment, video games promoting the glories
of war and offering chances to “kill,” and more. Indeed,
the Defense Department spends as much as $2.6 billion each
year on recruiting.
Mayor Daley’s claim that “[military
programs] provide… students with
the order and discipline that is too
often lacking at home” taps into and
fuels racialized perceptions and
fears of unruly black and brown
families and youth. They must be
controlled, regulated, and made
docile for their own good and for
ours. A 16 year old student attending
a public naval academy in
Chicago understood the school’s real
goal—unquestioning rule-following—
when she said in an interview
in the Chicago Tribune: “When people
see that we went to a military
school, they know we’re obedient,
we follow directions…” An authentic
commitment to the futures of these
kids would involve, for a start, offering
exactly what the most privileged
youngsters have: art education,
including dance, music instruction,
theater and performance, and the
visual arts, sports and physical education, clubs and
games, after-school opportunities, science and math
labs, lower teacher-student ratios, smaller schools, and
more. Instead, to take one important example, a recent
study by the Illinois Arts Council reports that in the
city of Chicago, arts programs are distributed in the
same way as the other rich educational offerings—
white, wealthy communities have them, while low
income communities of color have few or none.
Although the Chicago Board of Education, City of
Chicago, Cook County, and the State of Illinois all prohibit
discrimination based on sexual orientation, the
United States Military condones discrimination against
lesbians, bisexuals, and gay men. Promoters of these
schools and programs willfully ignore the fact that
queer students attending these schools can’t access military
college benefits or employment possibilities, and
that queer teachers can’t be hired to serve as JROTC
instructors in these schools. This double standard
should not be tolerated. Following the courageous
examples of San Francisco and Portland, Chicago
should refuse to do business with organizations that
discriminate against its citizens.
Military schools and programs depend on logics of
racism, misogyny and homophobia. Military schools need
unruly youth of color to turn into soldiers, and they need
queers and girls as the shaming contrasts against which
those soldiers will be created. In other words, soldiers
aren’t sissies and they aren’t pussies, either, although these
terms and others like them are used to regulate behavior in
military settings. Military public schools are a problem,
not simply because “don’t ask don’t tell” policies restrict
the access of queers to full participation in the military, but
because these schools require the systematic disparagement
of queerness and queer lives. We reject the idea that
queers should organize for access to the military that
depends on our revilement for its existence, rather than
for the right to privacy, the right to public life, and the
right to life free from militarism.
We live in a city awash in the randomly, tragically
spilled blood of our children. We live, all of us, in a violent
nation that regularly spills the blood of other children,
elsewhere. We must all reject a public education
system that contributes to these horrors by habituating
children to soldiering

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1 Response to Child Soldiers: The Military Assault On Chicago’s Public Schools

  1. Pingback: They Call it Memorial Day, The Chicago Veterans for Peace See it Differently | I Teach

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