America’s Army Invades Our Classrooms

The military’s stealth recruitment of children

By Corey Mead

Illustrator: J. D. King

Teachers across the country know only too well that the No Child Left Behind Act requires public schools receiving federal funding to allow military recruiters access to campuses and to private student data. Now this link between the military and our public schools has gone one step further. In fall 2008, the Ohio Department of Education announced a new partnership with the U.S. Army and Project Lead the Way to “promote student interest in the engineering and technical fields” by using the military-developed videogame America’s Army in middle school and high school classrooms statewide.

According to an Army press release, students will be able to use the America’s Army gaming platform to, among other things, “explore kinematics in a ballistics project,” “test the accuracy of their calculations” in virtual environments, and “‘drive’ a vehicle around a virtual obstacle course as well as perform a virtual helicopter drop,” all in order to “increase student mastery, especially in technical studies.” Following this year’s pilot in Ohio schools, Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit with close ties to the distance learning and educational outcomes assessment market, will incorporate its America’s Army learning modules into teacher training systems for pre-engineering classes nationwide. Further applications are being considered for modules in biomedical sciences, digital electronics, and robotics.

While one might expect educators to be wary about such blatant military intrusion into their classrooms, Susan Tave Zelman, Ohio State Superintendent of Public Instruction, has no such qualms. The Army press release quotes Zelman as saying, “When we were approached by the U.S. Army late last year [2007], we realized the great opportunity this project represented for engaging students in a learning environment that excites them. . . . This marks a real shift in the education paradigm to utilizing a technology platform that students are familiar with and enjoy!” No mention of the content of the “technology platform” America’s Army is made.

Initially developed by the Army as a recruiting tool, America’s Army is a free online game in which players (as soldiers) proceed through four basic training modules before moving on to more advanced training or to virtual missions. Hugely popular since its 2002 release, America’s Army currently boasts over 10 million registered users.

The game was explicitly designed to target 13-year-olds in the Army’s words, “to capture youth mind-share” who have yet to make a decision about what to do with their lives. As Colonel Casey Wardynski, the creator and director of the America’s Army project, told me in an interview, “You can’t wait until they’re 17, because by then they will have decided that they’re going to college, or to a trade school, or they’ll already have a job that they’re planning to stay in. You have to get to them before they’ve made those decisions.” Because America’s Army targets minors, the American Civil Liberties Union recently found that Army use of the game violates the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict that the U.S. ratified in 2002. When I asked Wardynski about the ACLU’s charge, however, he said, “I don’t see [America’s Army] as recruitment, I see it as education.”

Two people who would likely share Wardynski’s perspective are Brenda Welburn, executive director of the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE), and NASBE past-president Brad Bryant. Announcing 2008’s Army-sponsored “Building Strong Futures Together” conference, held at Fort Jackson, S.C., Welburn declared that the conference would “stimulate, and sustain, dialogue with one of our nation’s largest employers of our public school system.” Bryant, in an open letter to NASBE members, enthused that attendees would “have the opportunity to test [the Army’s] weapons simulation, . . . do humvee rollover simulation, and overcome our fear of height [sic] with the Tower exercise. Can we say high school hands on learning!”

The uncritical embrace of military technology, ideology, and crucially, money, evidenced by Welburn, Bryant, and Zelman, poses a danger to students everywhere, and is of special concern to educators of conscience. As state and federal education budgets are slashed in response to the collapsing economy, and as the military strains to find personnel for the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, our schools and the military will undoubtedly join in an ever-closer relationship.

One related example of this is an as-yet-unannounced partnership between America’s Army and the College Board. According to a senior Army official, the College Board plans on using the America’s Army platform to develop individual learning profiles of students, which parents will then use to determine their child’s preferred learning environments and modes.

Educators looking to resist this military encroachment into our schools and into education can begin by visiting the website of the Coalition Against Militarism in Our Schools (www.militaryfreeschools.org), where they will find numerous antirecruitment resources. They can also organize letter-writing campaigns to their state and local school boards urging against the adoption of America’s Army in courses on any subject. Further, teachers in the language arts, humanities, and social sciences can use their classrooms as spaces where the rhetoric of military recruitment is critically examined. Only by taking action on multiple levels can we hope to counter the military’s pervasive and increasing influence on our public schools.

Corey Mead (corey.mead@baruch.cuny.edu) is Assistant Professor of English at Baruch College, City University of New York. He is currently revising a manuscript on the military’s influence on American education, and how this influence is made manifest through the military’s use of videogames as training and recruiting tools.