The Case for Universal National Service

Service commitments could prepare youths for life after high school

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Our educational system isn't working well anymore for young people unless they are brilliant, rich, or, better still, both. It fails to provide meaningful career training for the two-thirds or more who won't ever get a college degree. And it costs those who do get degrees more than is reasonably affordable.

In the current presidential campaign, these problems have risen to the national stage. Politicians from both parties have championed college affordability. Hillary Clinton said at her nominating convention that "a four-year degree should not be the only path to a good job." These positions are all to the good, but it's time to consider a more comprehensive response: universal national service for everyone after high school.

If properly structured, this national service would teach participants vocational and occupational skills and provide them financial credits for a college education thereafter. It would strengthen our military, refresh the country's infrastructure, and enhance social services for those most in need.

The Case for Universal National Service, Service commitments could be transformative for education, offering youths training and a sense of purpose, writes James M. Stone. Photo by Getty.

The notion of universal service for the country's youths is not new. Over a hundred years ago, in his much-quoted essay "The Moral Equivalent of War," the philosopher William James called for the "conscription of the whole youthful population" so that "injustice would tend to be evened out" and our young would "get the childishness knocked out of them."

Franklin D. Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps was the closest our country has come to accepting this notion. The CCC was voluntary, but at one time arranged for close to 3 million corps members to work in its more than 4,000 camps. They planted something in excess of 3 billion trees and developed many hundreds of parks that remain in full use today. Later came John F. Kennedy's Peace Corps. Like the CCC, it was less than universal. By the late 1960s, at its peak, the Peace Corps had around 15,000 volunteers. When President Bill Clinton established AmeriCorps in 1993, 49 governors offered their bipartisan support to the program's strengthening and reauthorization; today, there are 75,000 AmeriCorps service engagements every year.

But we have never had a truly universal national-service program. It is time we did.

My notion of universal national service would call for every young person between the ages of 17 and 22 to perform at least one year of service in an approved field. A second-year re-enlistment would be available on a voluntary basis. The work to which the young people could choose to be assigned would be in one of three areas:

"Universal national service offers the only workable answer to the major issues in American education compatible with cultural realities."

1) Military: On the military side, where compensation would almost surely be highest and a two-year enlistment likely required, the need is obvious. The military is one of the most ethnically diverse organizations in the country. Measured by family income, however, the military is far less diverse. The national service program would make it far more so.

2) Infrastructure: Potentially useful work on the maintenance and creation of American infrastructure is not hard to identify. Many young hands could be used to build roads and bridges, assist in hazardous- and solid-waste disposal, assure safe drinking-water supplies, and even revitalize crumbling school facilities. They could also help "green" the economy for independence, efficiency, and sustainability. Strengthening infrastructure represents an investment in future economic prosperity; our parents' and grandparents' generations understood and acknowledged this better than we seem to.

3) Social Services: The opportunities are legion on the social-services side. Service-commitment jobs under the umbrellas of AmeriCorps, Senior Corps, Learn and Serve America, the Peace Corps, Teach For America, and other initiatives are already doing much of what a universal program would encourage-and there is always more to be done.

The nexus between universal national service and education may not be obvious at first. However, universal national service offers the only workable answer to the major issues in American education compatible with cultural realities.

More Opinion

The right program would trade service for financing in the case of the college-bound contingent and provide the absent vocational training for those ending their academic training after high school. It would give a boon to the rest of us, in the form of useful military, infrastructure, and social-service enhancements. It would also enhance patriotism and our sense of inclusive common purpose.

Conscription in World War I and World War II, as many who experienced it later attested, helped meld a disparate population of immigrants, industrial workers, and farmers into the nation that became the envy of the world. Universal service would provide a healthy wake-up call for a divided nation and a lesson to both rich and poor in our fundamental sameness. False prejudices and narrow suspicion would surely be reduced if everyone spent some time laboring side by side with others of differing stripes and origins. Our nation's pride, compassion, and national unity would all be increased. National service would be a transformational leap for education, for the kids, and for the country.

Vol. 36, Issue 04, Page 19

Published in Print: September 14, 2016, as The Case for Universal National Service
Related Stories
Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories





Sponsor Insights

Free Ebook: How to Implement a Coding Program in Schools

Successful Intervention Builds Student Success

Effective Ways to Support Students with Dyslexia

Stop cobbling together your EdTech

Integrate Science and ELA with Informational Text

Can self-efficacy impact growth for ELLs?

Disruptive Tech Integration for Meaningful Learning

Building Community for Social Good

5 Resources on the Power of Interoperability from Unified Edtech

New campaign for UN World Teachers Day

5 Game-Changers in Today’s Digital Learning Platforms

Hiding in Plain Sight - 7 Common Signs of Dyslexia in the Classroom

The research: Reading Benchmark Assessments

Shifting Mindsets: A Guide for Training Paraeducators to Think Differently About Challenging Behavior

All Students Are Language Learners: The Imagine Learning Language Advantage™

Shifting Mindsets: A Guide for Training Paraeducators to Think Differently About Challenging Behavior

How to Support All Students with Equitable Pathways

2019 K-12 Digital Content Report

3-D Learning & Assessment for K–5 Science

Climate Change, LGBTQ Issues, Politics & Race: Instructional Materials for Teaching Complex Topics

Closing the Science Achievement Gap

Evidence-based Coaching: Key Driver(s) of Scalable Improvement District-Wide

Advancing Literacy with Large Print

Research Sheds New Light on the Reading Brain

Tips for Supporting English Learners Through Personalized Approaches

Response to Intervention Centered on Student Learning

The Nonnegotiable Attributes of Effective Feedback

SEE MORE Insights >