The Military and American Society: The Role of JROTC

Wendy H. Wong
Ph.D. student, Department of History

The existence of the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) in the public schools has been highly controversial. The specific debate over JROTC hinges largely on its appropriateness as a pedagogical tool. Its advocates contend that it teaches important life skills such as self-respect, leadership, discipline, and how to be good citizens to adolescents, particularly troubled and marginalized youth. In addition, they argue that JROTC has helped such youth not only to better their lives, but also to better their grades and to increase the chances of graduation from high school. Its opponents argue that JROTC denies these same adolescents a balanced education, militarizes them, and increases their chances of joining the military. The debate has divided the public in Philadelphia such that emotions on both sides have run high in the past. Tellingly, a poster advocating opposition to the militarization of America’s youth issued by the American Friends Services Committee provocatively asks, “how can you be all you can be when you’re DEAD?”

In recent years, the Department of Defense has been responsible for the expansion of JROTC nationwide. According to the Army JROTC website, JROTC has expanded to 1555 schools today and to every state in the nation and American schools overseas. Cadet enrollment has grown to 273,000 cadets with 3,900 professional instructors in the classrooms. JROTC has also expanded in Philadelphia, due to the efforts of Philadelphia School District CEO Paul Vallas, who has brought his experiences in working with the Chicago School District to bear on the matter. Many parents and activists who are not only vehemently opposed to JROTC, but who are also alarmed by its rapid expansion have advocated alternatives—namely, Peace Academies— that they believe are far more effective in encouraging students to resolve conflict peacefully, without resort to the use of force.

As specific as the debate over JROTC appears, it arguably has far larger implications for American civil-military relations, and for American society in general. Throughout the history of the United States, the relationship between the American society and the United States military has been an ambivalent one. Central to this relationship has been the debate over the role of the military in protecting not only the interests of the United States, but also its relationship to the civil liberties for which the Republic claims to promote.

In October 2005, CENFAD will be holding a day-long symposium in of roundtable discussions on the nature of JROTC, marginalized youth, and its role in our schools. The symposium is meant to provide an interdisciplinary forum for the following questions: should the military and the DoD take upon themselves so crucial an educational role? Is JROTC beneficial? What is the significance of JROTC’s expansion in the post-9/11 world?

CENFAD has so far managed to secure the participation of Dr. Michael Neiberg, author of Making Citizen Soldiers: ROTC and the Ideology of American Military Service; Dr. David R. Segal, author of Recruiting for Uncle Sam; Dr. Catherine Lutz, author of Homefront: A Military City and the American 20th Century; and Dr. Arthur Coumbe, author of U.S. Army Cadet Command – The 10 Year History.