Captive audience

January 06, 2003

UNCLE SAM wants you: That's the mandatory civics lesson for high-schoolers imbedded in the No Child Left Behind Act, which took many families and educators by surprise by requiring schools to give names and addresses of their juniors and seniors to military recruiters upon request.

The sweeping federal legislation designed to hold schools accountable for student achievement also quietly made it easier for the Defense Department to identify potential recruits. This has nothing to do with education, except to exploit its captive audience and the institutional machinery of schools, which so conveniently serve as repositories of private information about children, and so easily can be compelled to participate by the threat of disrupted funding.

Because it's a mandate, not an option, the access given the Pentagon affords it an advantage over colleges and universities, and the many others who'd like to make a pitch to the best and brightest of America's high schools.

Of course there are to be mechanisms for families to tell school systems to erase their children's names from the list. Of course, the teen-ager who gets the phone call can hang up. The glossy brochure that speaks of scholarships and newfound skills but not blood and death can be tossed in the trash.

And of course that call from a military recruiter may also open a door to a life of worthy public service and opportunities for heroism. It may be more than a call; it may identify a calling.

It's not the end that's troubling to us.

It's the means.

Yes, the Pentagon has a recruiting problem: The number of high school graduates who express the desire to join the military has been dropping, the pool of potential recruits shrinking. And some of the nation's 22,000 high schools were refusing military recruiters' requests for students' names or access to campuses. But at thousands of high schools, the recruiters have been as welcome on career day as any college recruiter.

It's not necessary to knock down the high school door to get the names before the male students turn 18 and dutifully register for Selective Service online or at the post office. Add this provision in education law to the growing list of invasions of privacy creeping into the culture since 9/11, nuisances that have the cumulative effect of Big Brother rearing his head.

The impending call-up of reservists for the threatened war on Iraq reminds us daily that America relies on the voluntarism of the nation's sons and daughters.

Strong-arming schools into opening doors to recruiters and prying into records most parents consider private isn't likely to burnish the Pentagon's image in the eyes of possible young recruits.

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