Analysis: Educating Future Counterterrorists

By Joseph Faina

The Harford County Public School District in Maryland has decided to take a more proactive role in preparing their students for the real world.  This fall Joppatowne High School in Maryland debuted their Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness (HSEP) program with an initial enrollment of 75 students, many of them high school sophomores. 

The Harford County School District website describes the program:

The mission of the Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness Magnet Program is to provide [students] access to career pathways in homeland security studies to offer them a better education and more choices to allow them to provide services back to the community, the State and the Nation.

As the September/October 2007 issue of Mother Jones explains, the HSEP magnet program, which is funded by numerous state and federal agencies as well as several defense firms, hopes to teach kids the “new reality” and place them in jobs in the $24 billion-a-year Homeland Security Industry.  HESP was originally conceptualized in 2003, to meet the needs of the Homeland Security Industry for adequately trained personnel.  It was a way to respond to the burgeoning job market in the Northeast Maryland region, which is the hub of the nation’s defense industry, in close proximity to the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Grounds as well as defense contractors such as Northrop Grumman.  Students can choose from several career pathways including Information and Communication Technology, Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement, or Homeland Security Sciences.  Additionally, according to David Volrath, the Executive Director for Secondary Education for Harford County, “we do want to encourage higher education.  We also want to be realistic.  Some of these defense contractors will have huge security needs, and the jobs won’t require four years of college.” 

Principles

We can explore the relationship between the school and the public and private national defense organizations that gave rise to it through Anthony Giddens theory of structuration, as outlined in his book The Constitution of Society (1984).  Giddens explains that rules and resources guide social action in the creation of societal structures and systems.  “In reproducing structural properties,” Giddens states, “agents also reproduce the conditions that make such action possible” (p.26). 

An example Giddens provides is that of consumerism. An individual reaffirms the social “structure” of consumerism through participation in day-to-day actions like grocery shopping and buying gas.  These actions are done both consciously and unconsciously, and they have both intended and unintended consequences.  Aside from people’s intentions, such activities produce the chance to act again in similar ways. So, buying a particular product will encourage stores to continue to stock it, which will allow people to continue buying it.

The reproduction of structures through social action works to uphold a particular perspective or ideology, and these perspectives do not always stay contained within their original institutions. In what Giddens calls a “duality” of structure, one social system, and the ideology that supports it, can be reproduced in another, creating a replication.  This replication in turn justifies or validates the perspective of the original structure.

Analysis

The HSEP magnet program is a prime example of such replication. In a closer examination of the school’s mission and goals, the reproduction of dominant structures becomes more evident.  As Volrath noted, while the school encourages higher education, its emphasis is on present homeland security and current counterterrorism practices.  The school’s website does have links to area colleges; however, they are institutions that also have programs closely allied with the Department of Homeland Security.  But the clearest indicator of the embrace can be found in an explicit link from the school’s webpage to the Department of Homeland Security website.  The display is more than just a tacit endorsement of the agency and its activities.  The school is aligned with a specific course of counter-terrorism that directly reflects the agencies and corporations who support it.  In reproducing this structure a specific narrative of fighting terrorists is also replicated, this time with high school age students, to the exclusion of other narratives and strategies regarding terrorism.

It should be noted that a close relationship between the nation’s educational system and military interests is not necessarily new.  Despite former President Eisenhower’s famous warning about the military-industrial complex, all levels of education have had programs specifically aligned with military interests on their campuses for years.  As recent reports from the New York Sun and the Washington Times illustrate, ROTC programs have repeatedly clashed with school administrators over the appropriateness of a military presence and influence on school campuses. 

But, unlike ROTC programs, which replicate military structures that are arguably effective, Joppatowne High School’s relationship with the defense industry will replicate current structures and perspectives that have not served us well.  The larger issue here is what we should be teaching students about terrorism.  It remains to be seen what types of jobs HESP students will be able to attain upon graduation, especially if they choose to forgo college.  Right now the choices seem to be military service, building weapons for makers like Northrup Grumman, staffing airport screening operations, or working for private defense contractors.  Creating a program to fill such personnel shortages replicates the current structure of the defense industry while doing nothing to address the many faults of that current structure.

Desperately needed in counter-terrorism are people who understand other cultures, other languages, and the implications their actions have on the overall mission we are trying to accomplish. Will HESP produce them? Despite Volrath’s hope that the program may start teaching “Arabic or some other nontraditional, Third World-type language,” the current curriculum seems to offer few of the critical-thinking and communication skills that a new generation of counter-terrorists will need.

The HSEP program is a reaction to a growing job market, and it is not necessarily a bad thing that we prepare for the growing demand in Homeland Security Industries. But producing enough warm bodies to fill job vacancies is not enough. Educating students to embrace the current defense industry will only reproduce our shortcomings in the war on terror. We will teach a new generation exactly how to continue losing it.

Further Reading

Giddens, A. (1984). The Constitution of Society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.