“Why are you teaching at a military academy?” For people who are supposed to be smart, professors ask stupid questions.
I’ve presented papers at dozens of academic conferences, and there’s always some condescending academic type who asks me that. It’s always asked with perfect innocence, so that I know they don’t mean to offend.
Let’s agree that my answer does not mean to offend: “Because where I teach is better than where you teach. Our standards are higher, our faculty work harder, and my students are better than yours.” I haven’t actually said this out loud before, but it’s how I feel.
The word “better” has fallen out of fashion in America. It makes people uncomfortable. Ranking some things as better or worse is divisive and controversial. Saying that certain values are better can become a slippery slope to thinking groups of people are better, particularly one’s own. I am sympathetic to these arguments.
But that doesn’t mean “better” and “worse” should be eliminated from national discourse. At our nation’s service academies, such words are used unapologetically. High schools students come to us wanting something better. Faculty come here wanting something better. The American public expects, when they see a newly commissioned lieutenant, that he or she believes the things an American officer stands for are better than those that characterize a less demanding life.
I think my colleagues understand the idea of “better”. Air Force Academy faculty have won the CASE Professor of the Year award nine times, more than 99% of all colleges in America. Even the Ivy League schools have not done better. And I say this having attended one.
Better still, I have my students: Those who have taken on the challenge of computer science, and those who have sought the rigor of the Academy Scholars Program. These young men and women are a college professor’s dream. They are hungry to learn, always prepared, and passionate in their search for truth. They will become America’s future leaders. Who wouldn’t want to teach them?
Yes, we are not perfect. We have high standards. When we meet them, it’s expected. When we don’t, it’s news. That is how it should be. And when the ship of idealism founders on the rocks of reality, cynicism takes root. All of us who work with young people have seen it. We deal with it as best we can.
But abandoning ship is not an option. I will not give up on “better”.
I believe that learning is better than ignorance. Right answers are better than wrong ones. Thoughtful engagement is better than unquestioning belief, and genuine understanding is better than blind regurgitation.
I believe reality exists independent of our perception of it. Critical thinking and the scientific method are the best ways humanity has to uncover its secrets.
I believe people have lived with great minds and great ideas. We are better for knowing them.
I believe running a mile in nine minutes is better than running it in 10. Running a mile in 15 minutes is better than not running one at all.
I believe hard work is better than sloth. Kindness is better than selfishness. Freedom is better than slavery. Duty is better than purposelessness. Responsibility is better than entitlement. Truth is better than mendacity. Flourishing is better than misery. Hope is better than despair.
Some values are better than others and, dare I say, no one creed or group has an exclusive claim to them. They are part of our human nature. They belong to everyone.
How many of us can say that where we work and what we do aspires to these ideals on a regular basis? I can. I do. I am proud of it.