I'm a colonel in the U.S. Army, and next summer I will retire to teach high school social studies. My friends think I'm crazy, and they may have a point. • Colonel is the last rank before general's stars, and it comes with significant perks. My pay is triple the national average teacher's salary. Military budgets have doubled over the past decade, while school districts have slashed funding, increased class sizes, cut programs and laid off teachers. The social status accorded to the military is wonderful, while teachers are routinely pilloried by politicians and pundits for student outcomes that are often driven by events and conditions far beyond the schoolhouse door.
My friends express these concerns reluctantly; they may hold teaching in low regard but don't want to be seen as holding it in low regard. More important, they remind me, I'm not just any soldier. Casting aside false modesty (the only kind we colonels know), I admit that my military career has followed an unusual path.
Over the past decade, I've written articles and given speeches on the failure of senior officers to adapt to the challenges of irregular warfare. I've advocated reforming the military's seniority-based personnel system to reward moral courage and intellectual rigor. My best-known article, "A Failure in Generalship," appeared in 2007 and caused the Army to rethink the way it educates its generals.
So why teach? For me, the answer lies in two moments. The first has occurred a half-dozen times over the past five years in conversations with four-star generals and politicians. Behind closed doors in Washington, there is widespread recognition that while our troops are remarkable, the great majority of our generals are not. In private meetings with senior leaders, I explain how parochialism, ambition and greed have corrupted our national security apparatus. Bad advice and bad decisions are not accidents but the results of a system that rewards bad behavior.
The second moment is the polar opposite. Unbeknownst to all but my closest friends, my great passion is not military reform but youth baseball. I've coached since my 18-year-old son was old enough to hold a bat, and at all ages from preschool to high school. Every season, there is at least one kid who just doesn't get it, who is embarrassed about not getting it, who leaves practice on the verge of tears, determined never to pick up a baseball again. Every season, I work with that kid one on one, before and after practice, on Sunday afternoons, any time when other kids aren't looking and there's no reason to be embarrassed. After about the third practice, I see in that kid a glimmer of recognition, a sense that he or she is getting it.
There is no calculation of odds or costs, only a sense of expanding possibilities. The glimmer grows each day: If I can hit a ball, what else can I do? It spreads: If one of us can get better, why can't we all?
Spring turns into summer, and this series of moments becomes a set of habits. These habits, a passion for excellence, a willingness to work, a commitment to others, are more about character than baseball. Shaped carefully, they cement the foundation of a young person's character.
Weighing these two moments, and alternative futures filled with many more like them, my new career choice became as obvious to me as it was perplexing to my friends. Another high school teacher, Aristotle, believed that people form communities not just to preserve life but to pursue the good life. The iconic, life-preserving figures of the post-9/11 era, soldiers, police officers, firefighters, certainly deserve the adulation they receive. But security is merely instrumental; peace and freedom make a good life possible but not inevitable. Especially in a democracy, we ought to respect most those who foster the character traits that make self-government attainable: parents and teachers, coaches and ministers, poets and protesters. When I hear the Army motto, "This We'll Defend," it's them I have in mind.
I've served five combat tours in Desert Storm, the Balkans and Iraq, and I've had cause to reflect on what it means to live well. It has little to do with money or social status or proximity to power. Instead, amid the clamor of a youth baseball practice, I'm part of a conversation on character that echoes in eternity. The opportunity to engage in that conversation more often is why I want to teach.
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