Every few years a laudatory call is made for instituting a universal program of national service. Most recently, No Labels has made this a plank of its 2020 Unity Agenda and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg has taken up the cause as well. While we are long past the era of the draft, national service is an important ideal and it is essential to consider incremental steps now to move toward an ultimate goal of universal service.
Americans have lost much of their sense of common communal responsibility. While the draft made military service common for males in past decades, over the past three decades, less than 5 percent of society has served in the military and a much smaller number has participated in the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. This has resulted in a loss of our common perspective from shared experiences, which is making it harder to heal our divisions and solve our challenges.
Expanded national service can help heal those wounds by promoting a new patriotism and commitment among Americans to the U.S., and our security at home. As we debate a move to mandatory universal national service, there are five incremental initiatives that can be taken now to, over time, vastly expand the ranks of Americans serving the country.
It begins with expanding the service programs we already have and that work well. While the U.S. military is right for many, other service-minded Americans have joined AmeriCorps, which enables people to serve communities across America and Peace Corps, which enables them to serve communities around the world. While some are pushing to shrink these programs, now is really the time to expand them and their mission as the base of non-military national service.
Second, the federal government could also sponsor a service-related gap-year program as a means to experiment with and ramp up broader national service, and create gap year options for those who cannot afford them. Gap-years have become increasingly in vogue as an opportunity to learn and grow before college. These gap-years, however, are rarely tied to giving back and often are limited to those in a higher financial sphere. A government-sponsored gap-year program that focused on national service could serve as a means to both expand opportunities to those with less financial ability to undertake a gap-year experience and could create programs that provide public service. Additionally, to save costs, such efforts can be developed and sponsored by private sector companies.
Third, the U.S. has a long history of providing tuition support to individuals who served in the military, including with the G.I. Bill post World War II and more recently as part of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill. Additionally, while tied to post-college activities, there are already college loan forgiveness programs tied to public service outside of military service. At a time when college tuition is prohibitive for many, providing tuition assistance to those who perform national service could be a means to both incentivize national service and make college more affordable for those in need.
The federal government could also make national service a consideration for U.S. government positions and fellowship programs. Today, being a veteran provides an advantage when applying for federal jobs. National service could be placed in a similar category.
Finally, any effort to revitalize national service also requires an effort to improve the parlous state of civic education in America. Surveys have revealed that very few Americans grasp or appreciate the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship and the workings of our government. Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor founded iCivics in 2009 to reimagine civic education. Her vision was clear and ambitious: To cultivate a new generation of students for thoughtful and active citizenship. Nonprofit advocacy is important but not sufficient. A true commitment to civics education must be made – with more resources and attention provided at every level of government – to ensure we are preparing our young people either in high school or as part of their service year, or both.
National service won’t fix everything that ails America. But in helping Americans from different places and perspectives work together to serve their country, it can start to bridge a divide that simply must be healed for Americans to come together to solve our toughest problems.