• Democratic Dialogue Project •
Our project, The Democratic Dialogue Project, aims to create a forum—a literal space and an intellectual climate—to bring Colorado College (CC) students and United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) cadets into dialogue about issues relevant to American public life. In so doing, the project aims to construct a space for the next generation of citizens and military leaders to practice engaging in the sort of dialogue across the military-civilian divide that is so vital to a healthy democracy and yet is so rarely on display in our nation today.
There are a number of occasions for CC and USAFA students to interact in social and athletic contexts, but there are fewer occasions for these two cohorts to come into contact in an intellectual setting and to discuss matters of significance relevant to all citizens (e.g., the proper response to ISIS, healthcare as a question of equality, the place of religion in public discourse, etc.). This reality often results in a troubling lack of genuine understanding between CC students and USAFA cadets that is merely a subset of the breakdown of substantive dialogue between military members and civilians that marks the national landscape. Given that less than one half of one percent of Americans serve in the military, it is easy to understand this state of affairs in which civilians and soldiers live autonomous existences, their paths crossing only in moments when a civilian says to a soldier, “thank you for your service”—a passing remark that offers little opportunity for a genuine exchange of ideas and experiences. This is troubling given that a fundamental principle of American democratic government is civilian control of the military, a principle that requires substantive and sustained dialogue between service members and civilians. This project aims to create a space for just such an exchange. In so doing, it understands college as an ideal training ground for a more robust civil-military dialogue.
Indeed, if, as Andrew Delbanco has recently argued, college should be a “rehearsal space for democracy,” then our project seeks to introduce into the college experience of CC and USAFA students a genuine democratic dialogue across the military-civilian divide.
CC Student Reflects on campus exchange with USAFA
October 4, 2016 • By Aaron Blinderman, Colorado College
My experience at Colorado College has been one of self-set expectation. My obligation to the college is notably broad. I am obligated to attend and succeed in my classes, and I am obligated to “contribute”. In this obligation, I am supposed to be exclusively a student. My academics are first and foremost, but that being a student—that is, to study, and explore—is to be applied in every pursuit in college. It is common to see students to use their time for a variety of pursuits, both for those within the oversight or funding of the college, and those very far without. Students have an impressive amount of time for any use. This was one of the first things that deviated from my reality upon my arrival at the academy. I met my guide in the morning and accompanied him to class, where the students were split up into teams working on the completion of a project that would be used in a very high-profile endeavor by a private company. My host was in charge of the management of these groups in their various pursuits. These students, within a supervised class, had access to and were participating in a huge undertaking that was not just learning, but creation and professional work alongside of paid military experts. While the other two classes I saw were not so “hands-on”, they were equally rigorous. Throughout the day, I was amazed by the organization and drive of all the cadets. Everyone was constantly going someplace, all constantly dressed in uniform, they had little time to themselves during the day, being held to a strict regimen of classes, physical activity, and drills in formation. At lunchtime, the cadets I was talking to froze as colors were presented and the various cadet groups marched in formation to lunch. I felt disorganized and out of sync as everyone else was specifically in tune to the intricacies of protocol that I was unaware of. Throughout the day, I was equally impressed with how documented the students were, any change to routine or deviation from expectations was met with paperwork and a hierarchy of permission. Everything from attending a retirement ceremony to wearing civilian clothing outside of designated hours.
At the end of the day, I discussed the impressive learning that was being accomplished, and discovered that a normal workload of semester classes is considered 5 classes. Besides that, there were mandated athletic classes that ranged from sports such as tennis to scuba diving and parachuting. In addition, cadets were obligated to attend “honor” classes, which go through lessons of the kind of person that is expected of you from the Academy. In addition to all of this are combat skills, and routine obligations required of you as a military cadet. Throughout the Academy, Cadets are obligated to be students, soldiers, athletes, and honorable individuals with a regimen designed to shape and push the best the best qualities of individuals.
The obligation at the air force academy was both precise and multi-faceted. Their obligations were not simply to study, to observe, and to question with their own direction as it is in Colorado College, it is to be prepared to serve in the Air Force in a variety of pursuits. While within the various mandatory expectations, there was significant room to find what you care about or what you enjoy, Air Force Cadets are expected to perform in character, military expertise, academics, and athleticism. During my visit, all the cadets were shouldering a huge amount of responsibility and emerging out of it exceptional in physical accomplishment, academic accomplishment, and military integrity. In many ways, Colorado College students are expected to perform in their academics, but it is up to their own discretion for any other pursuits, to a variety of results. However, what was most notable to me were Cadets’ expression of opinion. As much of their lives at the academy are spent as representatives of the Air Force, their personal opinion about politics is muted. For them, the expectation is that they serve, and have no bias for whomever the Commander in Chief is, or domestic or foreign policy changes—lest it affects their own ability to perform. I saw many observations and detailed remarks, but actual opinions about policy seemed limited to safety and military policy, and personal opinions about other realms in politics were muted. This highly contrasts CC students, who are encouraged to proclaim and argue opinions, and frequently make their points with “I think that…”. There was less of that in the academy, in that many students kept their personal opinions to themselves.
What really stuck out to me about the day was that I saw cadets conditioned to perform a variety of tasks with a responsibility, drive, and efficiency that was, frankly, almost herculean.
What really stuck out to me about the day was that I saw cadets conditioned to perform a variety of tasks with a responsibility, drive, and efficiency that was, frankly, almost herculean. A student was getting scuba certified, boxed, worked in astrophysics, lectured on integrity, trained in the morning, and studied advanced economics all while being held to a high military standard on appearance, organization, and Air Force readiness. However, throughout all of my visit, the question of why, or taking a larger perspective was not emphasized. When asking about policy pushes from the administration to the Cadets, the reason for the policy push was never discussed. Rather the policies themselves and the results of the push were examined. However, as a professor said to me early on in my college career: “The most important, and the most common, question at a liberal arts school is ‘Why?’”. In many ways, the free time at our institution, and in our academics is hinged on that simple question. Colorado College students revolve around questioning, asking why, and challenging the status quo. This difference illustrated part of the divide that exists between Cadets and Liberal Arts Students.
I left at the end of the day being impressed with the accomplishments and responsibilities that cadets shoulder, but reminded that dialogue between cadets and students is an exceptional and important tool. For students, who are so prone to question why, and to form opinions and sometimes quickly move to denounce others, Military Cadets prove an important foil. Their contrasting experience in learning gives them a unique perspective on topics of policy and current events that is more focused on details and substance rather than on opinion and personal feeling. Being able to bring two passionate groups both equally ready to do good in the world together helps both to understand the approach the other will take in everything from policy to tackling challenges. I saw cadets pursuing their own passions and shaping themselves, albeit under a responsibility to many more factors than themselves. This responsibility can help to illustrate a student’s perspective where a lack of direct responsibility can sometimes lead to too much personal opinion and too little substantive evaluation. After my first day, with all of these contrasts and differences, it helped only to cement the need for more exchange and dialogue to expand and enhance both cadet and student perspectives—which will hopefully help to illustrate the gap between civilian and military and begin to bring the two perspectives somewhat closer. Needless to say, I hope I can be back soon, and cannot wait to hear a Cadets opinion of Colorado College.
Democracy Now! host to speak at cc!
Be sure to join us before the event at 5:00pm for appetizers at the Wild Goose Meeting House. We will "pre-brief" the talk with CC and USAFA students! Click here for the associated reading!