Why compulsory service is a good idea.

I am currently at the convention of the National Collegiate Honors Council. As you can imagine, when a group of educators get together we tend to talk about educational and therefore social concerns. Last night was our annual dinner with our CIC colleagues and I again shared my thoughts on what I think could be positively transformative for our society: compulsory service.

Proposal

Every person, male and female, would serve 12-24 months in government or community service after graduating from high school or reaching 18 years of age. This service would be either in military service or community service and would meet a number of needs.

  • Military – For the forseeable future, whether we like it or not, we need a strong military presence around the world. We also need more people, plain and simple, since we have a relative few doing so much the burden upon them is becoming unbearable and the consequences catastrophic. Furthermore, we are in danger of creating a “warrior class” where only those who are either trying to move out of poverty or who are children of military parents go into the service. The result is a distancing for most Americans from the cost of protecting our country and our freedoms.
  • Disaster Relief – We currently depend upon our military, particularly our National Guard, to bring aid within the US such as after Katrina. While some security is needed in those circumstances most of the services provided would be best served by relief workers, specifically trained for such duties. (Our military is too often asked to provide relief and peace keeping work for which they are not in fact trained.) These workers could also be deployed abroad. Currently existing programs such as the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps would be appropriate collaborators.
  • Community Service – There are various needs in our society that could be well served by those opting out of military service. For example, teaching English to non-native speakers, park service, construction work, childcare, and so on.

Benefits

  • Maturity and skills development – Regardless of whether one entered military service or community service at the end of their duty these young folks, now 20 years or so, would have acquired important skills including discipline and training in a vocation. For those who would then enter college, a “GI Bill” would be in place, would be at a much greater level of maturity and better able to appreciate and use their education.
  • Talented Workforce – Many young people today don’t go to college and do not have access to training or opportunities for jobs because of their lack of training. Having completed their duty these individuals would have appropriate skills so that those who do not go on for higher education they would be better prepared to enter the work force.
  • Labor – Our country is in great need of good labor, whether it is in the military, rebuilding our infrastructure, or in community service.

This would be a dramatic change for the US and not one that expect would be terribly well received. Some would say it smacks of socialism but so far there is no serious attempt to deal with these various issues. This single (yet complex, I admit) solution would address a wide variety of needs and would benefit all parties. Other countries have done something very similar (I first learned of it studying German language in Germany, taught by someone who was doing their community service)1 and we would be able to learn from their mistakes and strengths. It is a grand plan whose time has come.

Now, Mr. Obama and Mr. McCain would either of you like to take this up?

 
  1. I believe it is still in place. The only article I could find is from 2004 when they were considering stopping the draft and one of the concerns was that the community service would have to end as well. []

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