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Young Americans need required national service

Paula Fass, professor emerita of history | March 8, 2016

Hillary Clinton has advertised her concerns for children and has a long track record of supporting policies on their behalf, and almost all Democratic candidates as well as President Obama have urged that college be made more affordable. But no candidate has addressed a critical question: What do young Americans between 18 and 21 need?

Indeed, the absence of the problems of youth from the campaign is notable. But youth’s increasing frustration with business as usual has emerged in this long campaign season in a variety of ways, not least in their unhappiness with establishment candidates. Candidates who are even semi-conscious of the problems faced by America’s youth have all put their emphasis on more schooling (President Obama), free tuition at public colleges (Bernie Sanders) or more generous Pell Grants (Hillary Clinton).

I want to propose that this presidential election cycle is missing the point and seriously out of touch with the problems of youth.

Schooling is not the solution and while the current proposals may create slightly more opportunity, it is still the same game – a schooling game that is in many ways the basis of the problem. Most young people today see schooling as rigged; something to be manipulated by them or against them; something that often leads nowhere. Schooling goes on forever and makes them dependent on their parents for a long time. It does not necessarily lead to jobs they value.

Young people – let’s call them young adults – are eager for meaning, for something to help define them as mature. They are eager for work. Yes, work. Only in the last one hundred years have we assumed that work is bad for young people. And certainly for seven-or eight-year-olds or even 14-year-olds, to work in factories or sweat shops is very bad.

But work that brings a sense of personal reward, camaraderie and a means to cut through what many young people see as the boredom of school-based abstraction, is just what most American young people need.

Of course, it has to be the right kind of work that will result in more equality, not less, the kind that gives its participants a sense of genuine achievement. So I am proposing that our presidential candidates consider two years of required national service for all young Americans between 18 and 21 years of age.

Some of these youth will elect to go into the armed forces, some could help to preserve and enrich the natural environment (as they did during the New Deal); others could serve as tutors in schools and community centers. Some might even feel that their time and energy might best be served by building houses for the poor or good water pipes in communities whose infrastructure is crumbling (think Flint). Others could help old people learn how to use the web.

We know that we as a society need these services. I would argue that young Americans would be given a sense of maturity and competence by providing them. Instead of sending high school students out to do community service to pad their resumes, or juvenile prisoners out to clean the highways, let’s give young people a sense of common purpose.

This service should, of course, be paid. Young people like to earn money and this would provide them with a means to gain a certain measure of independence from their parents. They could then use the money to pay for tuition, invest in a business, save for a down payment on a house or apartment – all things that will give them independence.

But the monetary benefit is only one of its many results. Young people would meet others from very different class, racial and ethnic backgrounds. National service would help to level the field (away from advantages provided by parents) and make the young much more aware of what they share with those who are not privileged. This was one of the objectives behind the development of common schools. Today’s young inherit too much from their parents – both advantages and disadvantages. National service would serve as a leveler of parental advantages and a liberator from dependence on parents.

There is another type of equality that national service would provide too often overlooked: It would allow non-academically-inclined students to shine in ways that today’s emphasis on schooled skills has completely obscured. Many young people have real talents though they are not good at sitting still. No amount of Ritalin can deal with the differences of temperament and inclination that are common to youth. Active work in which building a house is seen as quite as valuable as tutoring math or writing would allow for talents of all kinds to be acknowledged as a social good, and rewarded at a point in life when this can be an extraordinary boost to personal growth.

I know that many people will contend that there are all kinds of obstacles to this plan, but I think it is so important to address the many serious problems of today’s young people – some of them the result of the way we have organized schooling—that these can be overcome with enough imagination and skill. National service will benefit young people, our society, and our future.

This commentary by Paula Fass, author of an upcoming book The End of Childhood in America, first appeared on the Princeton University Press Blog.

Comments to “Young Americans need required national service

  1. I completely agree. Thank you for being so bold and insightful for a purpose that truly helps the nation while both enriching our youth and providing an option besides the failing job market.

  2. Where do young people who already DO work fit into this proposal? I, for one, started working when I was 16, not because I wanted to, but because I had to, and I haven’t stopped working since. And like me, many of the students at Berkeley, and beyond, who are members of the community of which you write, already have jobs on and off campus. I’ve met students with more than one job on campus, even those with full course loads. Some of their wages help to support their households. In fact, their families, including their parents, are sometimes dependent upon them.

    So I wonder, which young people does the author have in mind here? Yes, some young people are largely, if not wholly, dependent on their parents in the way that the author describes, and they do yearn for meaning. But there are countless others who sit in Berkeley classrooms who don’t have the luxury of not working. How would this plan for required national service affect the lives of these young people? Would young parents, between 18-21, who are working full-time, be accommodated or exempted?

    If we are going to propose a plan such as this for our presidential candidates, we should not lose sight of the varied experiences and hard economic realities that many young people are facing.

    • Quessie’s has raised a very thoughtful concern about those students who are already working many hours while in school. I think we have to think very imaginatively and outside the ordinary tracks. I was imagining national service as an exclusive commitment for two years, not as something that students in school also do while enrolled. In fact, it would be an excellent way to allow young people to think carefully about whether academics is the best route for them. Young people who need to help their parents financially would be able to do this by being paid for doing full-time work. After two years, many young people would welcome returning to school, newly enthusiastic for the academic work that they had interrupted and newly mature to appreciate it. Others would have found that their talents and inclinations led them in non-academic directions. These young people might decide to return to school later in life. Returning students (some in their thirties and forties) have been among my very best and most engaged undergraduates

  3. The excuse of “national service” would simply be used to provide bodies of the poor as fodder for the American empire, as it was in Vietnam and now increasingly throughout the Middle East and Africa. Better to destroy the empire than to burn people, both foreign and domestic.

    • I also worry, with Robert, about the possibility that national service could be abused. But, it is up to us as citizens to make sure that this does not happen. National service does not have to be militarized service. On the contrary, it can and should encourage the use of our energies toward a variety of important peaceful purposes.

  4. Completely agree. After completing Cal on a Navy ROTC scholarship, I entered the Navy to complete my payback obligation – never intended to make it a career. I ended up staying for 27 years precisely for the reasons you state, first for myself, and later to be a part of those experiences for those who joined – the military provides exactly that mission, sense of purpose and increased self-confidence that you just don’t get from an internship. I don’t advocate for the draft and I’m not a recruiter, but I’m a huge advocate for some kind of public shared service.

    A side note: it’s sad that ‘public service’ at the high school level has turned into a college admissions criterion, which has the potential to demean both the service and the public supposedly served. Building character and broadening horizons, absolutely, but to fill in the oval of how many hours worked/semester to fatten the college resume misses the point.

  5. Completely agree with you. Thanks for posting!

    The Public Service Center on campus engages thousands of students in co-curricular service each year and works in partnership with the American Cultures Engaged Scholarship program to embed service into course requirements across the University. When combined with analytical frameworks for understanding “root causes,” guidance on how to respectfully enter into communities and organizations, and intentional reflection about their service, it can be a truly transformative experience for students and impactful for communities.

    What seems to be gaining traction in the field now is credit-bearing immersive service – students spending a quarter, semester, or even a junior year in service and earning credit for those engagements. And of course service outside of formal schooling at all is valuable in itself.

  6. These are all things that the draft used to do. Except because it was mandatory the pay was not that great.

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