Here’s an idea that periodically develops traction across the political spectrum, though it’s not particularly likely to be implemented: a one-year, nonmandatory national service program for Americans ages 18 to 28.
One focus for this notion is the Franklin Project, which grew out of discussions at the Aspen Institute in the summer of 2013.
The Franklin Project believes that America is “suffering from a deficit of citizenship and a general lack of connectedness.” Its solution is a program that provides opportunities for young people to perform one year of full-time service that addresses community needs — “education, poverty alleviation, food security” — in exchange for modest stipends, scholarships or help with student debt.
Such service wouldn’t be mandatory, but it would become a social expectation, a “civic rite of passage” that connects young citizens to something bigger than they are.
The Franklin Project’s Leadership Council is an impressive collection of CEOs, academics, foundation directors, politicians and public figures from the left and the right, from Madeleine Albright to Condoleezza Rice, from Barbara Bush to Tom Brokow.
In the summer of 2013 columnists E.J. Dionne and Michael Gerson, again spanning the political spectrum, wrote in support of national service, as did David Ignatius last November and Dana Milbank just recently.
Milbank sees national service as an antidote to what he calls “Slacktivism,” a modern American version of engagement that doesn’t require any real commitment or sacrifice. We may hear more about this as the 2016 presidential campaign develops: Milbank notes that potential candidates Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio and Rob Portman have all indicated their interest in national service for the young. In short, a national service program sounds like a grand idea that many people of all political stripes support.
So why can’t I work up more enthusiasm for it? It might be because I’m skeptical about the idea of solving a problem by the imposition of an obligation by one group on another.
It’s worth noting that, as far as I can tell, no one on the Franklin Project’s Leadership Council appears to be 18 to 28 years of age. Although the lives of many of the members of the council have been devoted to service in one form or another, if the idea of national service becomes a political issue — in the next presidential campaign, for example — no doubt it will be used to appeal to and will find support among many older citizens who did not themselves practice enough citizenship to bother to vote in the recent midterm elections.
If our country suffers a lack of civic engagement and shared experience, I wonder whether there are other ways of addressing the problem besides asking the young, who didn’t create the problem to begin with, to devote a low-paid year of their lives to it.
Consider the American public schools, for example. No institution embodied the divisiveness and “lack of connectedness” of American life more than the segregated public schools that prevailed between the Civil War and the mid-1960s. And apart from the military, no institution has done more to connect and provide a common experience for all Americans, regardless of race or economic status, than integrated, post-civil rights-era public schools.
At least in theory. Even though we’ve always known how to create and maintain very good public schools, we have failed to provide common, equivalent experiences for all students.
Like in many states, public schools in Texas, for example, reflect local tax bases, and despite efforts to develop funding equity among school districts, it’s clear that not all schools provide identical experiences for their students. Rich neighborhoods have better schools than poor ones.
Students know this. If we want to connect students with our culture, to make them feel like they’re part of a larger enterprise, why not provide them with an engaging, well-resourced public education that embodies a common experience, identical in every respect regardless of race or economic status?
This would be a way of showing them that they are, in fact, living in a society that’s worth belonging to.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. To reach him, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.