Soon high school graduates may no longer be packing for college at this time of year. It may not even be an option.
Increasing numbers of American leaders advocate for a new wave of public service—one in which all 18-year-old high school graduates must commit the next 1-2 years to public service. This would include military service and social or philanthropic labor within the US or overseas.
Armenia, Austria, Greece, Belarus, Brazil, Mexico, Russia and Israel already require national military service for at least their male youth. America, in contrast, has not drafted anyone since the Vietnam War. It now gathers its troops and public servants solely on a volunteer basis.
Unfortunately, very few Americans feel that it is their responsibility to participate in optional national service. In World War II, 12 percent of the US population served, compared with fewer than 0.5 percent today. Only 20 percent of today’s members of Congress have served in the military, in contrast to 70 percent of the members in 1975.
America has ignored George Washington’s principle of, “When we assumed the soldier, we did not lay aside the citizen.” The ‘soldier,’ or more generally, the ‘public servant,’ should no longer be separate from the common citizen.
Perhaps the recent call for mandatory service is a renewal of President Kennedy’s, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Perhaps it this proposal is just one step further than Kennedy’s Peace Corps and Clinton’s AmeriCorps.
According to author and commentator William Buckley, the distinction between the Peace Corps/AmeriCorps and mandatory service for all is that “the other programs have been made to sound as though only heroic Americans subscribe,” while mandatory service would create a culture in which those who did not subscribe would be considered outside of the norm and disrespected for their shirked duties.
One does has to wonder how Americans can feel so fiercely entitled to their civil liberties for their entire lives, but are unwilling to give even 1 year of service to maintain such freedoms and repay debts to such a magnificent nation.
Without the sacrifices of our forefathers, America would not be the open, free society it is today. It may not be necessary for everyone to be willing sacrifice their lives, but American youth should at least briefly contribute to the nation through some form of service.
Undoubtedly, this change would strengthen the country, as well as the collective morale. An American society that mandates all to serve would be bonded together in a way that is impossible today.
In Israel, all children are raised with the understanding that at 18 years old, they will proudly serve in the IDF. Regardless of race, gender, and socio-economic status, everyone understands that their early future will be the same: They will serve in the military to defend their home. For the duration of their service, all are in uniform and on equal playing fields. Military service is an integrating force, connecting all who serve.
Americans today are so intensely divided—among racial, partisan, economic, geographic lines—that an integrating force like mandatory public service is highly necessary. Americans would stop perceiving themselves as self-serving individuals, but would rather understand their role in something larger than themselves.
Past Princeton University President Shirley Tilghman proposed the “Bridge Year” program, which would encourage admitted students to commit a year to public service abroad between high school and college. Tilghman predicted that exposure to service and the world outside of a pressure-filled, academic environment would prepare incoming freshman for a more meaningful college experience.
Clarion University President Karen Whitney agrees. She asserts that 20-year-olds make much better students than 18-year-olds, especially when a public service experience is able to “instill a sense of purpose and relevance that is often missing from the lives of 18- and 19-year-olds.”
1-2 years dedicated to service builds character, patriotic values, and a deeper understanding of the surrounding world. This increased awareness would certainly make America’s youth more educated and open-minded in whatever they pursue as adults.
Perhaps serving one’s country should (and one day will) become the primary means to transition from youth to adulthood.
Public service initiatives (such as the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps) will not be successful on a large scale. The fear of wasting time and falling behind peers who enroll directly in college or the workforce will prevent many youth who wish to volunteer from doing so. Only a societal change, in which all are required to serve, will be effective in mobilizing massive numbers.
Perhaps with enough advocacy from writers, university presidents and other public figures, service will one day no longer be optional, but required by federal law. If such a change were to be implemented, students matriculating to Penn in the near future may be wise and experienced in ways unimaginable by most college freshmen today.
It is time to repay debts to the country that has given its people so much. It is time for the bonds of the American people to be strengthened through common experiences and values. It is time to transform individually oriented youth into service-oriented, aware, giving and mature adults.
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