A Call to Service: Tough times call for a renewed public-spiritedness in our country

Posted by Rick Chrisman, Kathryn Lazell & Margaret Myers

The time has come, given our extended military commitments since the Korean War and in view of today's depressed economy, for this country to institute universal national service. 

Because the U.S. is unique in its public-spiritedness, as evidenced by our Constitution ("We the people"), we have grounds for considering such a high civic commitment. Our country was founded on the idea that an informed and participatory electorate was the best hope for creating a prosperous and unified society. Among the basic tenets of American citizenship was public service as a duty to the nation. Since our founding, these values have eroded considerably.

Whereas civic participation was once seen as a duty, today, to the extent that people think of service at all, Americans have different reasons for serving.   Some want to "give back" or to "pay forward" in return for the benefit of living in this democratic society.  Some, in a broadly altruistic way, just want to "serve our country" or "help others."  At the same time, many more people view service as a vehicle for individual development that may have good effects upon their character or make them more employable.  

A portion of young Americans see military service as their choice, but many more might also serve if there were alternatives to the military that qualify as "moral equivalents of war" (as William James phrased it) and contribute to the welfare of the population and the needs of the country. 

Although recent census data show that 26 percent of the total adult population, about 62 million Americans, serve in some volunteer capacity every year, these numbers include very occasional and inconsistent participants. Some service programs, like City Year, have many more applicants than seats.  How much greater benefit would there be to the nation's prosperity and unity with a more comprehensive system, focusing especially on young people ages 16 to 24 who, at present, only constitute 13 percent of annual volunteers? 

After years of a compulsory — and grossly unfair — draft during the unpopular Vietnam War, any type of mandatory and binding duty to the government has fallen out of favor. Consequently, any discussion of universal national service must presuppose a voluntary yet strongly incentivized plan to attract young Americans across all ethnic and economic spectrums and across the whole range of demographics (e.g., region, religion, gender, sexual orientation). In a country so rich with diversity, there is very little left in contemporary America that binds us together.  But with universal national service, if everyone participated, the common experience would provide a new basis for unity by bridging otherwise disparate lives - if everyone participated.

Shouldn't every person be expected to contribute his or her fair share of time, but with a choice of a preferred venue?  Such venues could be set up in a threefold system: the military, for those inclined to defend the country with arms; higher education with a service component; and a pure service organization offering participants the choice of volunteering in such areas as schools, hospitals or infrastructure maintenance.

But the challenge lies in making the system truly universal, so that as many people as possible participate. Special considerations like health and hardship must be taken into account and adjudicated with consistency.

Such a radical change in practice, will, of course, require a radical change in thinking — and one that will not be easy to effect. However, when one keeps in mind the fact that this country is one based, at least theoretically, upon civic involvement, it becomes easy to see that such service, however one wishes to define it, should be a moral expectation.

We propose that a campus-wide debate be organized in which all the issues relevant to this topic may be brought to light. Who would be interested in partnering with us to organize such an event? A good project for a class in the Government Department?  Something the Skidmore Democrats would work on?  A campaign by the Skidmore News?  Any takers?

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