Soapbox: National Service

In the spirit of our recently celebrated Independence Day, I’d like make a proposal: National Service.

It’s true that military conscription is not the issue it was when I was a youth. Back then we protested being forced to participate in a war that we considered immoral. Back then we campaigned for the right to have some kind of say in our collective future. (In my eighteenth year, my birthdate, December 4th, was the #1 draft number–had I been male I would likely have been in the army, like it or not.) All young adults are still required to register for the draft at age eighteen, but I think I have a better idea.

I have long advocated for the United States to adopt a National Service Policy, similar to those that are common in other countries: Young adults are required to give two years of service to their country. Yes, it might be in the military, but why not some alternatives? How about serving in the Peace Corps? AmeriCorps/VISTA? Even people with disabilities have something to offer: Tutoring through Literacy Volunteers, helping out in food kitchens, Big Brother/Big Sister programs. There are so many organizations that rely on volunteers, and we have an army of teens at our disposal.

So many young adults graduate high school with only a vague idea of what they want to do with their life. Even solid, well-considered plans for one’s future change as we learn more about the world around us. Some teens view college as a great escape–one long, drawn out keg party interrupted by brief obligations to the classroom. Some have had their lives so orchestrated by well-intended parents that, when they are suddenly thrust onto a college campus and expected to make wise decisions, they falter…some never recover. Most college attendees struggle with a mountain of debt from four years of studying for a career that they might eventually decide is not the career for them.

So why not give each and every high school graduate a chance to ease into adulthood with a little guidance? Serving in a volunteer organization that takes you from home and puts you under the wing of advisors. Mentors. You have to learn the independence of living “on your own” while still within reach of a guiding hand. You gain strength, understanding, and hopefully maturity so that when, at age twenty, you emerge from your service obligation, you’re a little older and a little wiser.

What’s in it for these young men and women, you ask? Why not consider expanding the idea of the G.I. Bill that provides financial aid for service members? Why not say, “Two years of service, for two (or four) years of tuition free college?” Instead of arguing about “giving” free tuition to those who want to go to college (or other career training), and then trying to figure out how to fund such a massive undertaking, why not let students earn it through national service?

I’ve voiced this opinion to political leaders in the past on both sides of the aisle. I mostly receive no response, although one person sent me a generic form letter “thanking me” for my suggestion. I kind of doubt they even read it; more likely it was handled by an aide who simply slapped my name on the letter and mailed it out. Way to go, people. I’m giving you what I think is a great idea; you can’t be bothered to consider it or even give a thoughtful reply.

Okay, they may have good reason for their non-response. But once–just once–I’d like to hear why.

**Feature image credit

2 thoughts on “Soapbox: National Service

  1. It would take an army to provide the manpower for setup and supervision. Not that that should be a problem, but it is an excuse. When I was teaching, we partnered with companies in town who provided mentors and jobs for our students if the students committed to getting good grades, having good attendance, and doing something we called leadership. The leadership component was much like your service idea but much broader. If the student was in scouts, or church work, or clubs, they could get the leadership component pretty easily. Sports yielded points, too. Many of the partner companies would have service days and they would pick up the students and take them out on the activity. It was great for the students and the community. BUT, it took lots of planning and details to get it all taken care of in a safe and sane manner. The legislators you’ve spoken with do not want to take on that responsibility.


  2. Ever since I heard of other countries doing this sort of “national service for tuition” program, I’ve always wished we did it in America. I’ve never heard anyone seriously campaign for a program like this, but it makes so much sense! But, I suspect that (as dkzody said) most politicians aren’t going to commit to making large, sweeping changes if there’s little chance it will bring them immediate reward/accolades.


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