Stanley McChrystal, the former commander of US forces in Afghanistan and now the chairman of a project on national service at the Aspen Institute (and, full disclosure, someone WRM has known and admired for many years), has an eloquent call for national service in the WSJ today. He laments the low number of Americans who serve the nation these days; most young people, unfortunately, consider the duties of citizenship someone else’s problem.“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced,” President Lincoln said at Gettysburg. To serve the country, Americans don’t have to put on a uniform. There is much that civilians can do. Here McChrystal’s idea:
At age 18, every young man and woman would receive information on various options for national service. Along with the five branches of the military, graduates would learn about new civilian service branches organized around urgent issues like education, health care and poverty. The positions within these branches would be offered through AmeriCorps as well as through certified nonprofits. Service would last at least a year. […]Some, particularly after having just observed Memorial Day, might think that only war is capable of binding a generation and instilling true civic pride. But you don’t have to hear the hiss of bullets to develop a deeper claim to the nation. In my nearly four decades in the military, I saw young men and women learn the meaning and responsibilities of citizenship by wearing the uniform in times of both peace and war. They were required to work with people of different backgrounds, introduced to teamwork and discipline, unified by common tests, and brought even closer by sacrifice. Some discovered, often to their surprise, that they were leaders.This transformation is not exclusive to the military. Those who disagree need only visit young teachers working 18-hour days together in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. In rural Colorado health clinics, in California’s forests, or Midwest neighborhoods devastated by tornadoes, skeptics would see teams of young people—affluent and poor, college-educated and not—devoting their days to a singular, impactful mission.
At Via Meadia we tend to be skeptical of calls to universal national service, and the occasional cries from the good and the great for mandatory service for young people give us the heebie-jeebies. We don’t think the American government is a feudal overlord that can demand compulsory service from the peasants, and people who think that it is, scare us. (We make an exception for a military draft in times of war or imminent danger of war.) But Stan’s idea—creating meaningful opportunities for young people to serve, making the case to them why they should serve, and creating a civil culture that rewards and celebrates voluntary service—is a different approach.The devil is in the details, and we suspect it will be a long time before a national service program works really well. After all, America has been trying to give every kid in the country a good high school experience for almost 100 years, and spending a lot of money on it. The goal of providing meaningful service opportunities to millons of kids is probably even harder to reach. These programs often work best on a small scale and deteriorate dramatically when blown up to giant proportions. We suspect that the various Agencies of Official Voluntarism that Stan wants to set up would become ineffective and expensive hotbeds of mediocrity before much time had passed. One of the things a culture of voluntarism and service is about is reducing dependence on government; more leadership from religious and other private groups and less official involvement from the Ministry of Joy might mean a slower start but a more satisfying performance in the long run.Quibbles aside, Stan’s proposal points to something very important that has gone wrong in the way we raise our kids. Kids need to be needed; they need to make meaningful contributions to the welfare of their family and to the broader community. They are human beings, and human beings who are shoved off to the side and given no meaningful work don’t develop very well. Whether or not this comes in the framework of a grand national service program, America’s young people need to spend time outside the bubble, doing real things in the real world.Isolating our kids in a school bubble for the first 2o to 25 years of life is an excellent way to raise a generation of insecure narcissists, highly skilled in the observation of their own moods and sensibilities, weak in the values, skills, and self confidence that can make them effective in the wider world. Fortunately many of the kids turn out much better than we have any right to expect, but Stan McCrystal’s core insight is spot on: the disconnect between the mass of America’s young people and real world experience of duty and sacrifice is bad for our kids, bad for those who could benefit from their work, and bad for the country as a whole.[Stanley McChrystal image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]