Sunday, January 10, 1999
By Pat Conroy
I recently read that Sen. Arthur Ravenel, a man I respect very
much, has proposed a merger of all the public colleges in Charleston into a single
university system. Sen. Ravenel seems to be strongly antagonistic lately to my college,
The Citadel, and his plan would effectively destroy my alma mater. I will cheerfully and
passionately stand in the senator's way on this important matter.
Though The Citadel can be a difficult place for outsiders to understand, its place in South Carolina's history is sacrosanct and revered. It is a military college of the first rank in a time when our nation needs more military colleges, not less. The Citadel seems to be in a state of either shock or depression after the recent debacle on the admission of women into the corps. It seems to have lost its bearing and confidence. The old strut and dash and roar have been lost in the shuffle of history. The Citadel family seems inarticulate when it comes to the task of expressing the nature of its own incomparable excellence. It seems to have forgotten the fact that it is the best college in the state, by far, and one of the best in the country.
Harvard, Yale, Berkeley and colleges like them can offer better educations than The Citadel, but they know nothing about the production of the whole man, a Citadel concept that has now been expanded to include the whole woman. They are not military colleges, these laboratories of leadership and camaraderie and discipline. They cannot impart the extraordinary benefits derived from a strict adherence to the military virtues.
In this time of strange corruption of ethics and values and standards, I think The Citadel is the best place in the country for a young man or woman to be. It is tough and structured and Spartan and wonderful. It requires lion-hearted, fearless young men and women with great inner strength and unshakable resolve. By entering the long gray line, they turn their backs on what is soft and absurd and decadent about college life in America. By becoming cadets and not just students, The Citadel will train them in the arts of becoming citizen-soldiers in a society that desperately needs more of them. By attending The Citadel, these young men and women join a proud and joyous family that has been tested by fire. It marks their singularity, their shining difference. It makes a ringing statement that they are nothing like the others, and it was as true in my generation as it is today.
I tell other writers that I meet in America that I received the best education for a novelist in the history of our republic. In the barracks I learned everything about the world I would need to know. When they tell me about fraternity or sorority parties, I tell them of marching to the mess hall every single morning of my life after reveille sounded at 0615 hours. When they mention their class cuts at Vanderbilt or Duke or Cornell, I tell them I never had a single cut in my four-year career, and I attended every class I was signed up for every time it met except when I was representing the Bulldogs on the basketball and baseball team.
While they were drinking beer and discussing literature, I could be found in my room during evening study period from 1930 hours to 2230 hours for five days a week, for four straight years. When they grow nostalgic for the long leisure hours of college life, I tell them about parades, Saturday morning inspections, drill, the required weekly haircut, the spit-shined shoes, the polished brass, the constant pressure that never let up once during the four years I called myself a cadet. While they were learning about college life, I was becoming a Citadel man, one of those who understand that discipline and honor and devotion to duty are not just words, but ways of life and paths to wisdom.
At the center of The Citadel education, the rock that anchors its soul, lies the Honor System. I found the Honor System simple and profound, majestic and life-changing: You will not lie, steal, or cheat, nor tolerate anyone who does. Those words struck me as beautiful then and even more beautiful today. They provide the frame of cadet life, and the Honor Code is moveable goods, and it travels with you all your life. It is the part of The Citadel education that is deathless and not for sale. It is what you get at face value when you meet the alumni of my college. Test us and it is part of our DNA. It is our password against chaos and disorder, the mark of our specialness.
I would trust with my life what Ernest Hollings or Joe Riley or John Palms or Claudius Watts told me. I would give the key to my house to Alvah Chapman, Nugent Courvoisie, or Robert Jordan, the superb fantasy writer, or Steve Buyer, the congressman from Indiana, or the lowest-ranking senior private in last year's graduating class. I would entrust the contents of my safety deposit box to Nancy Mace or Petra Lovetinska or any other graduate of my college. The Citadel is not like any other college in the country. It is one of a kind, and its utter uniqueness is both its rarity and lasting value.
In 1996 I accompanied President Bill Clinton and a delegation of 50 Americans to Ireland in an attempt to get the peace process started again. It was my proudest moment as an American citizen. President Clinton handled himself magnificently, and I thought my country could not be in better hands. I was ecstatic when he won his two terms as president, and I attended his last inaugural ball in Washington with the South Carolina Democrats. As South Carolina knows, I am a white Southern liberal of the knee-jerk variety, and I thought that Bill Clinton represented the best of my breed.
I was wrong. I was terribly, terribly wrong.
Because of my Citadel education, I cannot accept a president so comfortable with lies, half-truths and evasions. This year has been agony for me as I watched the politician I admired the most putresce before my eyes. Because of the Honor Code, I believed the president about Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Monica Lewinsky. I bought the whole package not because I am naive, but because I am a Citadel man and cut my teeth in a military society where our word was our bond and where our trust in each other in the barracks was such that it was against the rules to lock our doors.
I learned lessons at The Citadel that my president did not learn at Georgetown University, Oxford University, or Yale Law School. Until this year, it never occurred to me I received a much finer education than Bill Clinton. He knows little about honor, responsibility and character. The Corps of Cadets at The Citadel is the best place in the country to learn all you need to know about them.
I can see the high humor in me writing this letter. I have been the leading critic of The Citadel in my college's history. There is no one even close in second place. This has been extremely painful for me and has caused a rift between my college and myself that may never be healed. It is based on the perception that I hate The Citadel. I respectfully disagree. It is my simple belief that I love the college more than anyone who ever lived, and I could care less who agrees with me or does not. I hold The Citadel to the same high standards she instilled in me while shaping me as a cadet. I have had one great fight with my college and one fight only. Through the years, The Citadel has been less than candid about the severity of the Plebe System. They are solving that now, but I require the truth from my college as much as I do from my president.
Sen. Ravenel is picking on my college, and I know an enemy of The Citadel when I see one. His plan would destroy The Citadel as a military college. Its glory lies in its being a military college. Our boys and girls are not like your boys and girls. We think we are vastly superior, and it is the source of both our strength and mystique.
In 1980 "The Lords of Discipline" came out and put up a Berlin Wall between The Citadel and me. The book began with these words: I wear the ring. It summed up everything I felt and thought about the dark miracle of my college. You do not want these ring-bearers forming an Army in the field against you, Sen. Ravenel. And believe me, senator, I know what I am talking about.
Nor do you want me on your case. If you do not think I would make a worthy opponent, sir, I have some good-natured advice for you.
Ask The Citadel.
Conroy, a 1967 graduate of The Citadel, is the author of "The Great Santini," "The Lords of Discipline," "The Prince of Tides," "Beach Music" and other novels.