Something stirred in me when Barack Obama was running for president. It reminded me of my undergraduate days. I was already in the army reserves, ready to be discharged during my last semester. I detested every minute of my active military service, but I felt completely differently about volunterring two more years of national service in the Peace Corps.
“Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country,” JFK challenged. So Lyn and I, newly married, went to Kenya in 1965. The experience gave us a new way of understanding, a new way of seeing and a new way of feeling.
When Obama tapped into the sense of service on the part of young people, my spirits were raised. My students were energized by the challenge; it lifted them and provided meaning beyond the pursuit of personal pleasure and success. Here was something they could live for—a call to give of themselves, to engage in a life that would contribute to the common good.
Two years ago today, soon after assuming office, Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, legislation designed to boost national community service. The bill funds the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). Even with recent budget cuts, CNCS will receive $1 billion in funding this fiscal year.
But, as far as I can tell, the call to the young people to sacrifice and serve has been drowned out by other matters. I haven’t heard one student refer to it or talk about wanting to do public service. The pall of lethargy and indifference to larger social concerns has reverted to pre-election lows. Instead of excitement and idealism, there is anxiety and cynicism.
Of all the disappointments I have felt about Barrack Obama, the one I most keenly feel is how the opportunity to engage young people in a common quest and get them invested in a future larger than their own small circle has slipped by.
One reason for this is that the Serve America Act relies on volunteers only. While I disliked my military service intensely and am glad that my son and my grandsons will not be dragooned off to war, I favor compulsory, universal national service. Universal means no exceptions: men and women, educated and uneducated, rich and poor, the connected and the marginal.
A national conscription may include military service, but it shouldn’t be confined to it. For those who object to the army, alternatives can be offered. Young people can be attached to many projects that can use fresh hands. There needs to be a place for everyone to serve, but it needs to be clear that everyone will serve, in one capacity or another.
New York Congressional Representative Charles Rangel introduced a bill in Congress last summer which, if passed, would “require all persons in the United States between the ages of 18 and 42 to perform national service, either as a member of the uniformed services or in civilian service in furtherance of the national defense and homeland security.” Although the scope of the bill is too narrow (many other kinds of service should be included) and Rangel’s motivation for promoting it may be off (he sees it as an anti-war measure), it is a beginning.
No doubt some will game a system of universal conscription to avoid serving altogether. There will always have to be minor exceptions and not all loopholes can be plugged. But the benefits of raising the expectation that each person will serve the nation would be enormous. It presents the prospect of turning the corner of Americans as consumers first to Americans as citizens first.
National service would be the opportunity for Americans from all corners to interact with one another face-to-face and thereby help repair the weave that has been torn by ideological interests.
Conscription should begin at high school graduation or not later than 18. This would have the added benefit of deferring college for a couple of years. My own observation, after more than 20 years of college teaching, is that the first two years of college are wasted on many students who use this time for social learning at least as much as for its educational value. When conscripts returned from service, they would be more mature and understand the value of education in a new way.
This proposal for compulsory service raises objects, I am sure. This isn’t a detailed plan but a starting point in a conversation about what is best for our nation, what is best for our young people and what is best for our future.
I would like others to have what I’ve had—a sense of meaningful work, a feeling of worth by having contributed to the common good, a widening into the wider world—and this can be fostered by societal expectations.
I came to the Peace Corps because the president inspired me. Obama came very close to doing the same for my students and I hope that that side of him will return once more.