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Going to War to Go to College: Student Veterans in Academic Contact Zones


Going to War to Go to College: Student Veterans in Academic Contact Zones

In the current all-volunteer U.S. military, many low-income recruits enlist for educational benefits. Yet many veterans find that their military training and combat experience complicate their ability to function in civilian schools; many drop out. Extensive research explores military training methods and outcomes of the G.I. Bill, yet little has been written about site-specific intersections of military and civilian pedagogies and cultures on college campuses. Moreover, there has been little written about how the presence of student veterans on contemporary campuses affects public discourse about U.S. involvement in foreign wars. This dissertation contests one often-cited explanation for low veteran success rates in college: that civilian campuses are anti-military, and by extension, hostile to veterans. Using Lave's analysis of situated learning and Pratt's notion of `contact zones', and drawing upon Gramsci's concept of `common sense', this dissertation explores the experiences of U.S. Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans on two California college campuses. It follows student veterans as their previous military socialization comes into contact and conflict with civilian academic, student and cultural norms. Drawing on interviews, observation of classes and everyday practice of veteran support NGOs, the dissertation shows that conflicting pedagogical and cultural norms and practices, rather than ostensible hostility towards veterans, impede veterans' success in higher education. There is little evidence to support the claim that contemporary college campuses show anti-veteran bias; indeed, framing campuses as hostile to veterans and conflating veteran support with support for U.S. wars produces a militarized common sense. Militarized common sense is a worldview based on the assumptions that war is a natural and necessary aspect of maintaining and protecting nationhood; that military priorities are more important than non-military ones; and that war veterans should serve as positive public symbols and proxies for U.S. military projects and wars. Acceptance of these common-sense understandings has the effect of silencing debate and dissent about the wars on campuses. The trope of the anti-military campus, while not reflective of contemporary reality, is rooted in historic narratives about the Vietnam War, and when veteran support programs are embedded in a context of uncritical esteem for the military, veteran support becomes a social force that organizes and regulates public discourse about the wars. Through the creation of discourses of care for student veterans, which simultaneously frame veterans as victims of discrimination and as heroes deserving of public valorization, campuses promote programs that conflate support for the veteran with uncritical support for the institution of the military, which has the effect of silencing debate on campus about contemporary military conflicts. This dissertation reveals some of the unintended consequences of these discourses of care. Campus veteran support efforts that conflate support for veterans with support for the military may be counter-productive to veterans, their teachers and classmates, because they tend to preclude candid discussions about the U.S. military and U.S. wars, which can heighten the cultural divide between civilians and military members. Moreover, for many veterans, these enforced silences, coupled with heroic narratives about past and current wars, increase the cognitive dissonance between veterans' lived military experience and their campus lives, which in turn can negatively affect their success in college.

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