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.
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.
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.