Perhaps in more ways than any school in the world, Cadets at the Virginia Military Institute are all treated equally and the same in a very structured and systemic environment. Let me explain.
The VMI Honor Code, “A Cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, nor tolerate those who do,” applies equally to all Cadets. One example, no cheating means that all cadets compete fairly on all tests and assignments. This is one of many examples of systemic and structural equality, fairness, and impartiality at the Institute.
Cadets come from many different states and countries, schools, families, backgrounds, religions, nationalities, and financial circumstances. Some are poor and some are rich. Some have expensive cars and beautiful clothes … at home, but not at VMI. Cadets differentiate themselves through their character and personality, academic, military, and athletic achievements. Like other colleges, VMI offers many academic majors, each with its own unique curriculum; but nearly everything else in Cadet life is the same, equal, fair, and impartial.
All Fourth Classmen (freshmen), or Rats, experience the Rat Line, a long period of training conducted by upper classmen, that builds character, integrity, self-confidence, courage, strength and endurance, prioritization and time management skills, self-discipline, life-long friendships, and mutual respect of all VMI graduates. The process breaks down and builds up the Rats without regard for their backgrounds. It molds each new group of Rats into a Class through military, physical, athletic, and disciplinary training. It develops VMI women and men to be leaders and contributors to America. The Rat Line is difficult for all, and many drop out; but all must go through the same process. All the same. All equal. Structured and systemic.
For four years all Cadets do nearly everything on the same schedule: awaken, march to all meals, eat, attend classes, military duty, parades, athletics, room and personal inspections, study, and sleep. All the same. All equal. Structured and systemic.
Uniforms may change throughout the day with different uniforms for different activities and weather conditions, but all Cadets dress alike for each of the various activities. Uniforms must be kept clean and pressed with shoes and brass shined and subject to regular inspections. All the same. All equal. Structured and systemic.
Cadet rooms are the same too, as are their beds (hay racks), mattresses (hay rolls), sheets and blankets. Clothes are hung or folded the same way, in the same order, and in the same place in every room for every Cadet. Clothes are clean, pressed, and starched. Rooms are regularly inspected and must always be kept clean and orderly. All the same. All equal. Structured and systemic.
Because of the strict adherence to the Honor Code no one locks room doors. There is no fear of theft, and no risk of unfair competition on exams or projects. No one lies, cheats, or steals or tolerates those who do. All the same. All equal. Structured and systemic.
Academics at VMI are much like those at any good university. They are rigorous and demanding. But VMI Cadets also shoulder the added challenges of military and athletic training. VMI is unlike other colleges and universities in so many ways, and it is those differences that develop young people in unique ways to be honorable citizen soldiers, leaders, and contributors to America and other countries.
The VMI experience prepares Cadets to take on the world and everything that the world may throw in their paths, confront those trials, and succeed. It is tough and not for everyone. For outsiders, it is difficult to understand and appreciate the VMI system. But for the alumni it has developed some of our best friendships and been the greatest and most valuable experience of our lives.
Gil Piddington is a VMI alumnus, class of 1968.