A Rite of Passage: Should young people be required to do a year of service?

There is a link waiting to be forged between civilian national service and post-service higher educational benefits. If pursued, this link could help ease the burden of student debt and help students meet the out-of-reach prices of higher education. What I have in mind here is voluntary national service, sometimes called “community service,” although that term enjoys unfortunate and widespread misapplication as a judicial penalty. Get caught driving under the influence of alcohol and you may find yourself working a fixed number of hours of “community service.” Yet it could be a positive force in our society.

Civilian national service is distinct, of course, from military service and, as the Peace Corps so well demonstrates, it does not have to be performed within the territorial limits of the United States. Moreover, the civilian national service I have in mind is not compulsory, like military service under draft legislation. For many, two words justified compulsory military service during World War II: Pearl Harbor. No similar justification is readily available today, although a good case might be made that the drift and purposelessness many people feel are sufficiently widespread that compelling the young—say those between 18 and 26—to perform a year or two of national service might be a very good idea. I would favor compulsory civilian service because unfocused youth would benefit from it, but I know that Congress would never legislate it.

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There is a movement afoot to remake America through civilian national service.The very name, Franklin Project, suggests a connection to the commitment that the founding father Benjamin Franklin had to voluntary citizen service. The Franklin Project is an ambitious effort to put national civilian service at the forefront of American consciousness.

According to Franklin’s biographer Walter Isaacson, one of the four prime movers of the Franklin Project, Benjamin Franklin died with a leather water bucket at his bedside, ready to respond to an emergency call to action by the volunteer fire corps that he launched in colonial Philadelphia. He was a true believer in citizen service.

The Experts Speak

Retired Army General Stanley McChrystal is another member of the Franklin Project leadership group. He started calling attention to the need for national service in an Aspen Ideas Seminar in 2012. He later laid out a rationale for national service in an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal (5/30/2013) by describing Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address as a “call to service” that was grounded in the famous words: “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” Lincoln was calling all Americans, says McChrystal, to honor the sacrifice of their countrymen who died at Gettysburg by committing themselves to forms of national service that would “carry forward the nation’s work.”

General McChrystal’s point is that Lincoln at Gettysburg was looking to the future and that he believed service to the country was not to be restricted to the military. It was the responsibility of all citizens to remake America. McChrystal would favor mandatory civilian service but acknowledges that the national mood and the votes are not yet there to support making service mandatory.

In June 2013 about 250 leaders from across the public, private, philanthropic, business, higher education and military sectors gathered for a two-day, invitation-only 21st Century National Service Summit at the Aspen Institute in Aspen, Colo. A plan of action hammered out beforehand by a 60-member leadership council was dissected and discussed with an eye to launching a national effort to recruit a million Americans, primarily but not exclusively young Americans, to commit themselves to a year of civilian national service complementing the nation’s one million military service members. This would constitute a two-sided service “coin” to be spent in addressing the nation’s unmet needs like urban infrastructure repair, environmental protection, eldercare, child care and revitalizing public education. Expanding AmeriCorps and Teach for America activity would be part of this picture.

The objective these planners have in mind is to make national service “a new civic rite of passage for young Americans.” Their message to the rest of the country is: “Get out of your zip code and out of your comfort zone and into a year of transformative national service.” The nation will be transformed, as will the persons who render the service. The service providers will mature just as the Civilian Conservation Corps volunteers matured during the Great Depression and the 18-year-old draftees matured during World War II.

Building Bridges

It is envisioned that the rite of passage will put willing young Americans on one of two “bridges.” The first is a bridge year from high school to college; the other is a bridge year after college, before engagement on a career path. The bridge experience would be optional but expected of all young Americans. The hope is to move the idea of national service from “nice” to “necessary.” Several generations ago it was not simply presumed, as it is now, that all young Americans will complete a high school education. But that has, for all practical purposes, happened. Why could it not happen with respect to a meaningful service experience?

If the “rite of passage” idea is to catch on, something resembling the post-World War II G.I. Bill, which offered educational benefits for returning veterans, might emerge. This is the link yet to be forged on the incentive side in this national conversation, which, by the way, resumed again in June 2014 not in Aspen but, not surprisingly, in Gettysburg, Pa.

In the present political climate, federal support for expanded national service is unlikely to attract much support. Hence the need for public-private cooperation, corporate and private philanthropic involvement and the expression of increased enthusiasm on the part of the young who are ready and willing to render service. Hence also the need for some nongovernmental organization like the Franklin Project to pull all the elements together, stabilize the movement and respond to the inevitable criticism that will try to suppress this initiative. Hopeful signs on all these fronts were in evidence at Gettysburg.

As one who has written on this subject and was appointed back in 1992 to the bipartisan presidential Commission on National and Community Service (later named the Corporation on National Service), I was invited to the summits at Aspen and Gettysburg. There were several points that I was particularly interested in raising for consideration. One was based on my personal experience as a beneficiary of the G.I. Bill of Rights after World War II. For each month of military service, veterans of that war were eligible for two months of free higher or special vocational education. We “earned” it through our service.

A Paid Education

With the higher education received under the G.I. Bill, veterans moved into better and higher-paying jobs in the postwar economy and, accordingly, paid higher federal income taxes. They have been paying their higher taxes since graduating from college around 1950. This proved to be the best investment in human capital that our federal government ever made. The return to the U.S. Treasury has been enormous. One can argue that the G.I. Bill was a self-financing program—a point to be made when objections are raised today that the nation cannot afford any expansion of national service. If a full or partial educational benefit similar to the G.I. Bill were attached to this 21st-century call to civilian national service, today’s young Americans would have an appealing incentive to reinforce their natural desire to serve. If the “Year of Service” idea catches on, it could translate into 24 months of educational benefits in various forms, not least among them tuition grants and student loan forgiveness. Even if a cap, say $10,000, were attached to the educational benefit, it would still go a long way toward bringing a college degree within reach of ready-to-learn young Americans.

I also expressed the hope that the Franklin Project will commission a study to mine the data and employ a simulation model to estimate the return to the Treasury based on the G.I. Bill expenditures from 1946 to 1950 (modest) over against the tax dollars paid since 1950 (significant) by the beneficiaries of the G.I. Bill. The data are available; informed estimates are possible.

Some structure is needed now to get the system up and running, and of course some private-public cooperative structure will be necessary to support this effort in future years.

Missing both at Aspen and Gettysburg were strong bipartisan political support and heavyweight private sector engagement. Both are needed. Names like Clinton and Bush were present, but they belong to Chelsea and granddaughter Barbara, not to their seasoned elders. No recent or would-be candidates for Congress or the presidency show any signs of enthusiasm for this movement, although Mitt Romney’s father, George, who served with me on the original Commission on National and Community Service, repeatedly remarked back then that “national service should be as visible as the Post Office.” Mitt never put legs under that idea.

John DiIulio, first director of the White House faith-based and community initiatives office under President George W. Bush, is part of this movement. He now runs the Fox Center for Leadership Development at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is a professor of political science and is doing what he can to generate Ivy League participation in the service movement. Tufts and Tulane are on board with preferential treatment for civilian service veterans. The Jesuit colleges have shown interest, but commitments remain to be made.

At Aspen the elevation and expectations were high. At Gettysburg there was an awareness that many organizational hurdles still have to be cleared. Perhaps it will be years before this movement takes recognizable shape and marks the culture shift the planners hope for.

Progress on this front, sooner or later, will mean progress toward a better America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
John Walton
2 years 8 months ago
Isn't it true that a young man or woman coming out of college doing sheet-rock for Habitat for Humanity at a below market wage is displacing some individual who needs a job?
Chris Miller
2 years 7 months ago
Habitat for Humanity, with the exception of the project foreperson; a skilled tradesman, uses volunteer labor to build their housing units, so it would not compete with people looking for jobs. There are a huge number of tasks that need to be done that there is currently no way to do: Rehabbing schools, protecting national parks and trails, helping nursing homes and providing additional teachers aides in schools, etc., are jobs that are not getting done, because budgets keep getting cut, and these don't get high enough on the priority list. Pr Chris
Julie McElmurry
2 years 8 months ago
It is possible to create a culture where people see giving a year of service as a viable option for life after graduation, right up there with graduate studies and jumping into a job. I've seen this accomplished on individual college campuses and look forward to seeing it become a "cultural expectation" as the Franklin Project states.
Henry George
2 years 8 months ago
I would say two years of National Service should be required of every 18 year old. That would allow them to understand that they are a citizen of the United States of America, to see a part of America they have never visited, to learn the value of good hard work and simple charity. During those two years they would mature and have a much better of idea of whom they are and what they would like to do with their lives when they enter College, Trade School or begin Working for a living.
Mike Evans
2 years 7 months ago
The entire discussion hinges on the "required" community or national service. How about if we described it as the "opportunity" for an entry level position sponsored by the government or in cooperation with private industry? We must find a way to encourage inner city youth who are often idle to re-engage with their community and learn about themselves and their visions for the future. Most military veterans report the best thing about military service was the comraderie developed among their friends and buddies. This certainly would replace gangs and other counter-producttve groups from dominating their lives. It also would expose our struggling youth to a much wider vision of the world around them and the opportunities for a lifetime of activity.
Chris Miller
2 years 7 months ago
Having worked with inner city groups, I have become more and more supportive of the concept of a year of service on the part of all Americans. (Disclosure: I spent 20 years in the US Navy; I am not advocating that non-volunteers be assigned to the military; I am talking civilian service. Those who wish to serve in the military should have alternatives to the civilian year, but that would be a separate track, with significant financial assistance, retaining the benefits our service men and women earn today.) What I envision for a year of national service, and why: A year of service for all young adults, as long as they can care for themselves. We can find work for physically disabled, for Down Syndrome and other developmentally challenged, and even for mothers with children (their children can go with them; they would be assigned to a program location where day care is available for them and other kids, and the mothers can learn about childhood development while meeting a pressing need in the country for good child care. They would graduate with much better parenting skills and the children they care for would also benefit.) Those entering the program would be able to specify the sorts of contribution they want to make: Some would want to be physically active, others involved in care of others, such as nursing homes, teacher aids, etc. Computer skills can be taught and used; data entry and programming are needs that exist all over the country. California's "City Year" programs even provides young people to help during wildfires. Those who are good students could volunteer to tutor a peer intensively during that year; the person receiving tutoring would spend part of their day learning with a tutor, and the rest of the time doing whatever else they are doing. Their educational achievement would grow exponentially; that can do wonders for the future of those being tutored. The requirements would be: A year in the program, with basic "uniform"...khaki trousers/slacks and a polo shirt or something, housing, food, and a minimum stipend per month (say $100.). Perhaps one free bus trip home for "leave" during the program. Medical care and dental care would be available...for many that would be a first. During the year of service, there would be activities designed to build teamwork. (marching teaches how to work together, for instance, leadership opportunities, etc.) And one last requirement: ALL participants would serve a minimum 200 miles away from where they live. It struck home to me that many young people in Washington DC, where the poorest neighborhoods tend to be in the SE and NE, have never visited the Potomac River--which forms the western border of DC, let alone the Atlantic Ocean, or even been to Philadelphia, or the Civil War battlefields which are so close to DC. How can we expect them to have great dreams if all they know is the 6-8 blocks around their house? Exploring a different part of the country, serving with people of all economic classes and educational achievements is a huge eye opening experience. I believe that if we were to institute something like this, we would do more to help young people see the real possibilities of life, and not just the inner cities or rural areas they already know. It would also do more to end generational poverty, as young people will come back with much broader perspectives than they currently have, than almost anything else I can think of. And Lord knows, we can use the willing hands that young people would provide to "fix" so much of what has been neglected in America. Various "certifications" can be developed, such as day care, landscape care, nursing home aids, computer skills, etc. that would be recognized when they return home. The program can be set up to cover, say, 2 years of Community College, at no cost, when they complete the program. The program doesn't have to be gold plated; the benefits we would get as a nation, and the personal development of the young people participating are almost incalculable. Pr Chris
Joseph J Dunn
2 years 7 months ago
The Franklin Project proposes to enlist up to one million young people, either just out of high school or just out of college, on a voluntary basis. Whether the program is paid for out of government funds, or by non-profits, or by business, or multi-sector alliances, there is a cost. That up-front cost is an investment that may well be fruitful in future years. But the proposals offered in the Comments for a mandatory civilian service of one or two years cause me concern, for several reasons. First, there is the massive intrusion, unwarranted by any current emergency, into the lives of many young people who do have their own plans, and who may benefit society quite well by pursuing those plans. There are about 3.5 million 18 year-olds in the U.S. today. Maintaining a mandatory program of 3.5 million recruits for one year would cost $35 billion if the cost of maintaining each recruit (food, clothing, housing, medical care, transportation) is $10K (I suspect it could be twice that amount). About 80 percent of them are high school graduates, the remainder have dropped out, except for a relatively few who are still trying to graduate. Of the high school grads who have been awarded a diploma, slightly over 20 percent lack proficiency in reading, math, etc., and cannot pass the written aptitude test required to enlist in the military. So up to 40 percent of our 18 year olds may lack the basic skills needed to be of meaningful service to others, except for the most menial tasks. That part of the "investment" I suspect would have little positive yield. Or would there be a screening exam similar to the military's aptitude test, that screens many of the same 18 year olds out of the "mandatory" civilian service program? The Franklin Project is an ambitious and interesting proposal. But let's keep it voluntary.

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