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College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

The Case for Universal National Service

By James M. Stone — September 13, 2016 4 min read
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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.

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.

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