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ROTC, Knox, and the Liberal Arts

By George Eaton '80

ROTC cadets on the South Lawn of Old Main

"I am not fond of the military or militarism. But I support ROTC at Knox because, if we must have a military, shouldn't we want it to be led by people with a  Knox education?" -- Mikiso Hane, late Szold Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History

Twenty years ago, the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) program at Knox College ended, cutting the College's ties to the U.S. Army that lasted more than 75 years. Thousands of young men and women enrolled in ROTC at Knox, and hundreds served afterwards as officers and enlisted in the active and reserve military. Dozens gave their life to defend our country. By and large, ROTC was strongly embraced by the Knox community, and Knox men and women have been standouts in the military. Knox ROTC made a contribution to the Army for more than 75 years and, in a small way, inserted the liberal arts into the military.

The Army began its relationship with Knox in 1884, with the creation of the Knox College Cadets. ROTC officially came to campus in 1919 at the College's request. During the period between 1919 and the mid-1930s, anti-militarism spread across the United States. Knox was not immune to the national discussion, and the Knox ROTC program played in a debate on the role of ROTC in a liberal arts setting. In sum, many suggested that the aims and values of the military were antithetical to the values of higher education. Some Knox students and faculty wrote articles that suggested ROTC went against the grain of Knox's classical education. On the other side of the argument, Captain R.W. Corrigan, who was an ROTC instructor at Knox from 1923 to 1927, wrote in the Army-Navy Journal that ROTC was not a "menace" to higher education. He argued that the ROTC experience led graduates to look at world affairs with the eye of one who knows the difference between war and peace. He averred that "the one who has military training is less likely to go looking for war."

The coming of World War II brought an end to the discussion on ROTC's impact. Through the late 1930s, enrollment in Knox ROTC, a voluntary program, rose to more than 200. While not ROTC, in 1938 a Civil Pilot Training Program was formed at the Galesburg airport. Knox students and faculty embraced the local program, and this connection led to the establishment of the 302nd College Training Detachment of the Army Air Corps on campus in 1943. More than 2,000 men came through the program and continued on to the Army Specialized Training Reserve. Knox still maintains contact with the Air Cadets through its alumni outreach programs.

ROTC at Knox remained strong through the 1950s and into the 1960s. By 1953, the voluntary program had military classes all four years. While patriotism certainly played a role in some Knox men's decision to stay in ROTC, cash and draft deferments probably played as large a role. Knox men enrolled in ROTC received a cash stipend in their junior and senior years, and they also got a deferment from the draft, a point made clear in every Knox Catalog from 1940 to 1972.

As the Viet Nam War resurrected some of the anti-military sentiment of the 1920s and 1930s, some Knox students and faculty attempted to remove ROTC, and, in 1969, almost a third of the student body signed a petition requesting the end of academic credit for ROTC courses. That same year, mathematics professor Frank Young authored a proposal to remove ROTC from campus. Young contended that Army education on a liberal arts campus was a contradiction in terms and that it was different "studying the military than studying how to be military." Others countered that the liberal arts education made Knox graduates more able to sort through the dilemmas of military life. Eventually, the faculty approved retaining ROTC on campus by a vote of 56-23.

In 1972, the draft ended, and students no longer needed a deferment. Numbers in ROTC immediately dropped. With the integration of women into the Army, women were added to the program in 1975, and Susan Runyan Davis '77 became the first female officer commissioned from Knox. The ROTC program was reduced to a two-year program in 1963, but it went back to a four-year program in 1976, offering four-year ROTC scholarships. And yet, ROTC enrollment continued to decline. In 1978, Knox established a satellite program at Monmouth College, and a Knox-Monmouth-Bradley consortium was established two years later.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1988 served notice that Knox ROTC would soon no longer be needed. The peace dividend after the Cold War included a large reduction in the size of the Army, which could no longer justify keeping ROTC programs at many smaller colleges, opting to focus more on science- and technology-based colleges. In retrospect, it is almost as if the nation's military leadership agreed with Professor Young that liberal arts and military training are incompatible. The Army officially ended the Knox ROTC program in 1990, and the last graduates were commissioned in 1991, after completing their ROTC training at Monmouth.

Almost 20 years after the last lieutenants were commissioned at Knox, it is interesting to think back on some of the objections to ROTC. Did military training undercut the basic values of Knox's liberal arts education? Did military training lead to a lack of thought? This is a hard question to answer. How does one evaluate the impact of a Knox graduate in the military?

One note of interest -- Knox ROTC graduates who had the most successful careers worked in specialties that dealt with the most ambiguity: Marc Kuiper '79 retired as a colonel in the intelligence field; Tom Rendall '77 retired as a colonel in the special forces; and Lieutenant General David Fridovich '74 is still on active duty as the deputy commander of U.S. Special Operations. Both intelligence and special operations require the ability to sift and sort diverse information and operate when the answers are not clear. These are careers where Knox graduates thrive, and it is in these areas where the Army could most use a Knox influence.

Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages Ross Vander Meulen, who worked to save Knox ROTC in 1990, recently said of the effort: "It was worth it. We thought it was important to try to save that little bit of Knox influence in the Army. It was important to keep that liberal arts view."

George Eaton, one of the first ROTC Scholarship students to attend Knox, graduated in 1980 with a double major in theater and history. Upon graduation, he embarked on a 21-year Army career, specializing in logistics. He currently is a civilian historian at the Rock Island Arsenal. He is married to Annette Zemek '81. They have two daughters, Maddy, a 2009 Knox graduate, and Kaily, a high school senior.


If you were ever enrolled in Knox ROTC or served on its staff, put Homecoming 2011 on your calendar! Knox is planning an ROTC Reunion on the 20th anniversary of the last ROTC graduates. Mark your calendars -- Homecoming is October 14-16, 2011.