John Lehman’s better idea: Drop ROTC; bring the ivy to the heartland

There is a vision fixed in the mind of power that America is a North/South country and the rest over there is just bushes. And of the two, the North is superior, as per the conquest of 1865 and the conditions of surrender at Appomattox. It is a purely colonial vestige that has injured our progress as a nation and injured especially national institutions like the Army, the Foreign Service and the Supreme Court.

We have, since Reagan, since Carter, even since Watergate, when Tennessee’s Sen. Howard Baker and the venerable North Carolinian Sam Irvin rose as folk heroes, culturally and politically awakened west of the New River, yet the Supreme Court today looks like something cobbled together around 1865: all from Harvard and Yale, most from New York or the Northeast. Some few friends of politicians. (Could we see those law board scores again, please?) I guess U. Michigan, U. Texas, Vanderbilt or Washington U. grads are just too rusticated to be Supremes. But youth wants to know: How exactly do you graduate from Yale Law School and flunk the D.C. bar exam? And after that get to be secretary of State? Friend of Bill is what. Helps to join the Supremes as well.

We are today an East/West country and will be hereafter. Our institutions should change as this demographic shift brings a fundamental change of mind and virtually a change of consciousness. Washington wisely put the capital between North and South in 1790. Today it should be around Louisville or Indianapolis. But that will take longer.

As the Appomattox Syndrome sends New Yorkers to the Supreme Court, it puts those red-state rubes from Tennessee and Nebraska into the Army. So the Ivy Leagues long declared themselves to be ROTC-free, to pursue more delicate goals. Resulting in a red-state, Baptist and fundamentalist Army. Frankly, I would rather have them in my foxhole, but like the Eastern Supremes, it throws the federation out again of ballast. Obama’s remedy, brought up in his SOTU speech, is to bring back ROTC to the Ivies. But John Lehman, secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan, says no and has a better idea.

Writing with Richard H. Kohn, a professor of military history at UNC, Chapel Hill, Lehman says that while some college leaders might want ROTC back, faculties are likely to be unenthusiastic. The military will always be an outside, uncomfortable and largely isolated presence on college campuses.

“Rather than expanding ROTC into elite institutions,” they write this weekend in The Washington Post, “it would be better to replace ROTC over time with a more efficient, more effective and less costly program to attract the best of America's youth to the services and perhaps to military careers.”

The armed services should consider a program modeled on the Marine Platoon Leaders Corps to attract the most promising young people. In a national competition similar to ROTC scholarships, students should be recruited for four years of active duty and four years of reserve service by means of all-expenses-paid scholarships to the college or university of their choice. Many would take these lucrative grants to the nation's most distinguished schools, where they would get top-flight educations and could devote full attention on campus to studies.

The Lehman/Kohn perspective approaches the problem from a relevant contemporary perspective: Instead of bringing the heartland to the Ivies, bring the Ivy to the heartland, where the future awakens. Let the people choose.