The days of every American having a family member in the military are over—most of the public have grown further disconnected from the armed forces following a reduction of overall force at the end of World War II and, most importantly, the end of the draft in 1973. Today, less than one percent of the U.S. population serves in the armed forces (according to NPR’s “By the Numbers: Today’s Military”, published on July 3, 2001). Yet, we civilians and our representatives are asked to decide the fate of service members and veterans; should they be asked to put their lives and well-being in harm’s way for a cause? Is the sacrifice we ask of them just? Are we willing to support those have served our nation and its interests? Most importantly, to those who have never served and who don’t know anyone in the military; how has your view of military service been shaped? West Chester University’s Soldiers to Scholars website, a student-run history project in which members interview and document discussions with veterans from America’s 20-21st century conflicts, is a vital effort to connect the stories of veterans to the public. A human face and a story is given to many who served via this project in a way many other media depictions fail to provide.
Soldiers to Scholars is a digital history project by design. It records veteran’s stories and facilitates a connection between veterans, their interviewers, and the online viewer. The most important aspect of the project is its collaborative nature. Online viewers can comment on the project, contribute, and participate at various levels. What this project does well is include a reading list and documentaries to supplement the video interviews. The website also offers a long directory of other webpages to connect individuals to other history initiatives, such as Temple University’s CENFAD. The inclusion of a short blog and the commentary function on this website allow for interested people to contribute to the project and post commentary about the content.
While the project is exemplary in many ways, it also has weaknesses. The website makes a point to notate the topics veterans discuss, however, it does not connect the viewer to these topics or connect topics to other veteran’s stories. It would also help the project to post the questions they asked veterans to the website directly. In addition, the members should consider making this website more interactive by expressing information via several modalities. The use of varied learning modalities is a point educational theorist Howard Gardner considers in his Theory of Multiple Intelligences; in layman’s terms, Gardner’s theory suggests people learn in different ways, therefore it is good to vary the ways you disseminate information.
To improve the project further, I would also suggest several additional changes. The recommended reading list would be greatly improved by adding readings and documentaries from all the conflicts of the 20-21st century. I would also push the authors involved to incorporate the interviews into a larger collection of primary sources. Links to documents, personal photographs, music, and connections to current depictions of conflicts would help the interactivity of the website and fulfill its greater purpose. The creators of the project should consider if they wish to simply present the information or if they wish to provide a format that inherently interprets of historical events and themes. However, a simpler improvement would be to categorize the interviews of veterans in a meaningful way to make the website more user friendly. Suggestions aside, Soldiers to Scholars is digital history at its best. Collaborative, open access, and a growing experience for all those involved.
*Note: While I speak of the project in the present tense, the project’s website has not been updated since 2011. It appears the organization has switched to using Facebook and YouTube.