Education Opinion

The Value of National-Service Programs

By Gresham Riley — August 01, 1990 4 min read

In his recent Commentary (“National Service: ‘Idea Whose Time Will Never Come,”’ May 30, 1990), Doug Bandow wrote that national service “is simply an idea whose time will never come.” Ironically, it is likely that some version of the idea will soon be approved by both houses of the Congress.

When Senator Sam Nunn, Democrat of Georgia, introduced his “citizenship and national service act” in January 1989, he set the stage for a debate about expanding opportunities for national and community service. And he did so dramatically, by linking such an agenda to the gradual elimination of most federal, need-based student-aid programs.

Understandably, the reaction to Senator Nunn’s proposal focused on the phase-out of student-aid programs rather than on the merits of national service. But it is unfortunate that what was most interesting about his bill--the service component--received so little discussion.

There were, and are, important questions to be addressed: Is the creation of a “citizens corps” among the nation’s young people the best and most economical way to address the nation’s unmet educational, human-service, environmental, and public-safety needs? Is it realistic to expect that participation in such a program would promote civic virtues and renew an ethic of responsibility to the community? Is there in fact an obligation on the part of citizens to engage in service to the nation? If so, why not make such service obligatory and universal?

In addressing some of these and other questions, Mr. Bandow focuses on important issues that should have been in the forefront all along. Unfortunately, his analysis is mistaken; it reveals a failure to study carefully the history of national-service programs and a serious underestimation of our country’s unmet social needs.

Mr. Bandow charges that government-sponsored programs are “far more likely to fund make-work than useful tasks” and that they “would likely prove to be pork barrels.”

The histories of both the Civilian Conservation Corps (1933-1942) and the National Youth Administration (1935-1944) do not support such a judgment. The main projects for ccc workers were soil conservation, tree planting, flood control, trail blazing, and road building. The nya was the ccc’s urban equivalent, with a focus on work-training programs, education for unemployed youths, renovation of public facilities, and service in government agencies.

Of the ccc, Charles Moskos has written: “The program’s achievements in the area of conservation were very real, and many of them remain environmentally useful a half-century later. Also, the beneficial consequences in terms of personal development of enrollees had assumed greater importance in popular understanding and press coverage of the ccc These features, more than the work-relief aspects, were most mentioned by ccc veterans in later years.”

A contemporary counterexample to the “busywork” charge, of course, would be the Peace Corps.

Mr. Bandow also criticizes national-service projects because they entail “opportunity costs"--the costs associated with delaying or forgoing a pursuit such as gaining a college education in favor of an immediate opportunity, like helping in a day-care center, of supposedly less social value. But the history of the nya tells a different story: Participation in the program was the financial means by which a college education was possible at all. It is estimated that, at the time, one in eight college students received part-time work from the nya

Unlike Mr. Bandow, I do not find it an “obnoxious ethic” that participation in government-approved tasks carries with it the possibility of taxpayer-subsidized education. Our experiences with the nya and certainly with the gi Bill suggest that important national interests are served bythis quid pro quo.

Mr. Bandow also contends that existing private-sector support and volunteer involvement are sufficient to address the nation’s unmet social needs. The facts support a different conclusion. Charles Moskos notes: "[A 1986 Ford Foundation report] concluded that nearly 3.5 million positions could be filled by unskilled young people. Most of these slots are located in education, the health sector, and child care, but several hundred thousand youth could be employed in such fields as conservation, criminal justice, and libraries and museums.”

If a new era of service opportunities is on the horizon, it will emerge from the Democratic omnibus bill approved by the Senate in March and its counterpart in the House. Both bills have been shaped in part by the higher-education community, particularly the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents approximately 830 institutions nationwide. It is appropriate that higher education take a lead role in crafting legislation supporting national service, for this issue lies at the heart of our institutional missions.

The underlying educational foundation of our universities--indeed, of schooling at all levels--is the preparation of young women and men for responsible citizenship in a pluralistic, democratic society. There is evidence that we are in the early stages of a shift among young people from a “me” to a “we” generation. What is needed now is reinforcement from the Congress of this emerging spirit of service in support of the national interest.

Historically, our schools and colleges have taught students that the benefits derived from their educational advantages carry social responsibilities. As citizens, and especially as educators, we should back legislation that encourages volunteerism and expands opportunities for community service.

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1990 edition of Education Week as The Value of National-Service Programs