National Service

There are multiple reasons for the current unsustainable degree of American polarization. A primary one, as I have written repeatedly, is a media environment that allows people to choose the reality most consistent with their particular biases. Another is the extreme individualism of today’s culture.

The United States has historically swung between an emphasis on community norms and an insistence on individual rights. (We rarely hit the “golden mean” promoted by the Greeks..) Too much “community” and we live in a society that demands conformity and ignores fundamental liberties; too much emphasis on the individual, and we neglect important–even crucial–aspects of the common good, and what is sometimes called “civil religion”–allegiance to the American covenant that creates community from our diversity. E pluribus unumout of the many, one.

One of the reasons I have long advocated for universal national service is that programs like Americorp create community. Such programs bring together young Americans from diverse backgrounds and introduce them to the multiple tasks that demand civic collaboration and create a polity. I have always supported national service in the abstract, but during the pandemic, I had the opportunity to see it “close up and personal,” as the saying goes. My youngest grandson took a gap year with Americorp after his high school graduation.

My very urban, upper-middle-class grandson, raised in downtown Indianapolis, joined a group of young people from a wide variety of urban and rural environments. They were headquartered in Mississippi (address of headquarters: Confederate Avenue…) He had always been public-spirited, but he learned a lot from his Americorp teammates and the various states and environments to which they were deployed. It was an altogether salutary experience.

Given the fact that our national government is effectively gridlocked–unable to pass anything other than the most trivial measures–I don’t look for the establishment of a universal or mandatory federal program any time soon. But the Brookings Institution recently reported on the growth of service organizations at the state and local level.

Investing in educational and career opportunities for young adults is a smart bet on the future. And that is exactly what many states, cities, and counties are doing with American Rescue Plan Act (ARP) funds.

More specifically, they are directing portions of the $350 billion in ARP’s Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds to create or expand service and conservation corps. In corps programs (also referred to as service or national service programs), members serve their community for defined periods of time, working on projects that provide clear societal value, such as building affordable housing, tutoring K-12 students, supporting public health efforts, aiding disaster response and recovery, and contributing to climate resiliency. In return, corps members earn a modest living allowance, gain valuable work experience, build skills, and, in some cases, receive a small educational scholarship. National service programs can offer a structured and supportive pathway into the labor market and postsecondary education, which is especially valuable for young people who otherwise might flounder. And they offer a solid return on investment: An analysis of AmeriCorps identified a cost-benefit ratio of 17.3 to 1. For every $1 in federal funds, the return to society, program members, and the government is $17.30.

President Biden’s “Build Back Better” Act–like so many other measures we desperately need–was stymied by the Senate filibuster. It included a robust Civilian Conservation Corp and other programs that promised a rebuilding of community and civic solidarity.

The continuing gridlock at the federal level doesn’t tell the whole story, however. The linked Brookings report highlights examples of how state and local governments are using  fiscal recovery funds to support service programs.

The list focuses on climate-oriented corps programs, but there are also ARP-funded service programs focused on community needs such as promoting literacy and stemming learning loss among K-12 students.

Much of the activity, interestingly, is at the municipal level. The report cites Austin, Texas; San Jose, California; and Boston, Massachusetts.

The pandemic illustrated another virtue of service programs: flexibility. During the pandemic, these programs adapted to meet the changing emergency needs. The report tells us that AmeriCorps and conservation corps programs “pivoted to address immediate problems: distributing food to people in need; serving as contact tracers; staffing call centers; and setting up beds and triage centers.”

As helpful as these activities were, the likely long-term effects of participation in delivering them will be even more positive. When Americans from all sorts of communities and backgrounds collaborate for the common good and work together to help equally diverse communities, they learn the importance of community writ large. They learn that not everything in life revolves around the individual and/or his tribe.

They are re-introduced to the American covenant.


  1. When I was young, my government felt strongly that I should go to Vietnam and shoot people. That threat made me very wary of forced participation in anything.

  2. “One of the reasons I have long advocated for universal national service is that programs like Americorp create community.”

    Forced universal national service sounds too much like Hitler’s Youth Program; with no “golden mean” source to work from or aim for, the “American covenant” would result in the same divisiveness we now have regarding the U.S. Constitution.

    patmcc has pointed out the best example of the results of “forced participation” results this nation has faced. It took “outing” the Pentagon Papers to release the truth to the American public after the “covenant” agreed to by both political parties to continue to cover up sending thousands of our young men to their deaths and return a generation of damaged bodies and minds for primarily failed rehabilitation by the VA. We are now living in “forced participation” in the Republican White Nationalist MAGA covenant with their supporters who remain in control from their minority position in government.

  3. I too have long supported national service between high-school and age 25. But I’m curious, Professor, if you think making it mandatory would stand the test of a 1st amendment challenge. I often wondered this about the military draft of eligible males (which is also discriminatory) but figured precedent and/or something in the constitution authorized it for military purposes.

    I ask this because I think it would ONLY work really well for the people who need it most if it WAS mandatory. WHY? Because, like everything else, it doesn’t matter how lucrative the benefits are, such as future free college or a lump-sum deposit on the purchase of a first home, many young adults will choose to opt out.

    An example is the Indiana 21st scholars program, whereby a child of need only has to apply for it early in their elementary school career, maintain a 2.0 GPA through high schools and they are granted a full-tuition scholarship to any college or university in Indiana to which they can get admitted. But the participation rate is dismally low. Why? I guess bc too many parents don’t know about the program, or don’t care about it (I have to believe it’s more the latter). The Indiana General Assembly has considered and possibly even passed legislation that would automatically enroll a child in 21st Century upon enrollment in elementary school. It would also require parents to submit a FAFSA application at the end of the child’s junior year of high school to determine financial eligibility (not sure of constitutionality of this either, given that it’s the financial equivalent of a colonoscopy).

    The cohort of US population between 18-25 is around 32 million. That would mean that, on average and once up to full speed, we’d have 4 million young adults involved in all kinds of services and projects around the nation each year. If it were a 2-yr stint it would be 8 million. Either number would be larger than any military and/or civilian force organized in US history and would be pretty expensive – I figure $2 trillion or more per year at $60k/yr/person, or almost 10% of our GDP. The defense budget is $778B, or 4% of GDP (an amount higher than the next 20 largest military budgets in the world combined).

    So mandatory might not work….but even making it an option for young adults out of high school, and especially targeted at kids from economically distressed households and communities could be an amazing use of national wealth and could restore some glitter to the term “The American Experiment”.

  4. We don’t have to make it mandatory, just offer full tuition and fees to any college, university, technical, or trade school the individual chooses.

  5. With all due respect to Aristotle, his philosophy was basically his opinion.

    And, judging by all of the research, I can’t see where finding a moderate position between two extremes is acting morally!

    Emmanuel Kant, referred to morality as being the unlimited Goodwill of a person, the desire to do right without limitation. Also, using rational thought that Goodwill is the sense of duty by an individual towards the moral law.

    It really isn’t complicated at all, after all, the Ethics of Mr. Kant are taken right from the Golden Rule, and the Law of Conscience. And, definitely not from Aristotle’s Golden Mean.

    Kant, whose opinion on ethics was quite renowned, actually stated that the “autonomy of rational agents were like a Kingdom of laws unto themselves.”

    It’s remarkably similar to the apostle Paul’s writing, in Romans the second chapter which he states;

    “For when people of the nations, who do not have law, do by nature the things of the law, they are a law to themselves. They are the very ones who demonstrate the matter of the law to be written in their hearts, while their conscience is bearing witness with them, and buy their own thoughts they are being accused or even excused.”

    Obviously, Kant had an excellent grasp on what morality was and where it came from! He also said that one of the perfect duties of a rational agent is to never lie, which, not surprisingly, made him an enemy of the Catholic church. The Catholic Church claimed that Christian ethics are more compatible with virtue ethics.

    Unfortunately the church leaning influencers of the time, were completely wrong about their opinions. Kant actually got it right!

    The church Dogma never followed actual scriptural teaching anyway, Kant knew history, and so did his antagonists, that’s why they attempted to dispel his intellectual writings. During the time of his existence, people were routinely used for a means to an end, not unlike today!

    So, truth-telling, research, and compassion we’re a huge part of being irrational moral agent. He kept making his point even though his contemporaries, or, most of them, highly disagreed. But, later on, he discussed the use of women in prostitution and pornography as a means for male self-gratification. This, he found deplorable. He pointed out that those practices would lead to mistreatment and immoral cruelty to women and children, treating them no better than animals.

    There really is no happy median when it comes to morality, you are either right or you are wrong, but regardless of what way an individual leans, we are still to show respect and love towards all of our fellow humans. That’s the golden Rule!

    Know your history, that way, you won’t repeat it’s bad portions. It’s painfully obvious that most, no matter what spot or stripe one happens to be, are not interested in learning from history. Everything is selective, it’s selective to need a permission slip for whatever we deem is morally acceptable or just desirable in general. A permission slip eases the conscience!

  6. And patmcc, thank you for your service despite it being for a cause we have long known to be both unjust and unwinnable (happy to argue this with anyone anytime but must be over drinks). I was privileged enough to be able squeak into college despite a dismal high-school record, self-fund it with a well-paying Summer job in a factory where my Aunt was the personnel manager, claimed a 2S draft deferment, and then later was lucky enough to draw #363 in the draft lottery, I was able to avoid a stint in what was by then Nixon’s war on Southeast Asia and the American public. I then became one of only 30 million or so Americans who voted for George McGovern, which I still believe was one of the most important votes I ever cast and it was my first.

    Anyway, I’ve regretted that I did not join the military as a young man as I was unquestionably a perfect candidate after high school and would have benefitted tremendously from the rigor, discipline and being part of something way bigger than I. But that’s how life works.

    Sorry for all the words today!

  7. From personal experience of my youth, I am a strong advocate for voluntary national service.

    The military draft (Vietnam Era) was a strong motivator. I volunteered for Army Reserves when I was seventeen and a junior in high school. I had done my homework. Reserves can only be called to active duty during declaration of war. A few exceptions.

    Completed obligatory basic training (boot camp infantry) and then off to college. Most of my boot camp peers eventually shipped to Vietnam. Most returned home.

    After college I volunteered to be YMCA World Service Worker in Ethiopia for $50 per month plus room and board. Both the military and global voluntary service were useful opportunities of young adult formation I could not have afforded on my own otherwise.

    Mandatory is not in the spirit of servant leadership. However, I do believe in incentives granted on completion, such as scholarship to institutions of higher education who become partners, if you will, to promote the ‘American covenant’ not the least to which one is rigorously tested on the meaning of The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution.

  8. As long as we “Amuse Ourselves to Death” (Neil Postman, 1984) we will be ever immature.

    We are already reaching the next plateau of being bored now even with all of the screens we live immersed in.

    I think that might be behind the cloud of dysfunction that CNN revealed (to me anyway) last night in their piece about Alex Jones. an immature bully influencer community cancer cell who had a great deal to do with Jan 6.

  9. Public service could be incentivized, for example by student debt forgiveness, or scholarship to a community college or university, as has been suggested.
    But the larger point is well taken: that service shared brings people of diverse backgrounds together, and helps to overcome the polarization that pervades our society.

  10. Pat, I was in the same situation, in Jan. 1968, when my draft notice showed up.

    Patrick, it was Johnson, who had a severe case of secret manipulativeness, who kept the truth from the public, even from his own economists, who had to find ways to pay for his constant escalations (see “The Best and the Brightest,” by David Halberstam).

    I like the general idea you put forth, Sheila. I applied for, and was accepted by the Peace Corps, in ’67, but did not like the assignment they offered, teaching chicken raising in India.

  11. I was born and raised in the coal mining area of southwestern Indiana and well remember during the Great Depression that we were dirt poor and used to swim in coal mine pits and jump off what we called “high walls.” Sometimes blackberries were lunch. FDR’s CCC “boys” used to come over by the truckload during the Thirties to what we called “the pit” after their workday and would bring bars of soap to cleanse themselves of sweat and grime after planting trees all day amongst the mining litter and debris. They were not all that much older than we were and we used to play “turtle tag” with them during their evening sorties.

    Joining the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) was voluntary, but in the midst of a hair-raising Great Depression where many did not have enough to eat, there were many volunteers. Years later during the preparation for and beginning of WW II when the CCC boys were in uniform, I and other high schoolers planted trees among the mining debris for the grand total of 25 cents per hour prior to graduation from high school and my enlistment during “the war” at age 17 and some time spent in the South Pacific. One could not be drafted until 18 unless one were 17 with parental consent so I was a draft dodger, i.e., I volunteered at 17 and beat the draft. I received my draft notice upon becoming 18 when I was in New Guinea. I sent it back to my mother and told her to tell the draft board that I was busy right now but would see them when I got back, if I got back. But I digress; back to the drawing board.

    I fear in this relatively good economy that if we made national service voluntary that rich kids would go to college right out of high school and poorer ones might try their luck in an underpaid workforce, a fear I need not have had in 1934 when there were few rich kids. I am nevertheless in favor of a voluntary national service for those graduating from high school with the promise that those who serve will earn a four year degree from college or a two-year community college degree at their option.

    Better this attempt at civic and social cohesion and lack of a lifetime of tuition debt than the alternative we are seeing play out today. Such a program should be regarded not as a cost but as an investment in that in time it will pay for itself because of the much greater revenues to government due to higher incomes of the educated over their lifetimes.

    A perfect program with zero hitches? Of course not, what program is? But worth a try? I vote aye.

  12. I don’t know, I’m a bit younger!

    I do know that my great uncles, my grandmother’s Brothers, we’re all involved in military service, it was so hypocritical, those Brothers came back, after the war, several of them were killed, and for what? They were somehow not worthy after risking their life for the country they live in? Or was it the color of their skin that made them targets. So what were they risking their life for? To come back and be murdered? Because I can’t see anything else. the first World War and the second World War and let’s not forget before all of that, the Civil War people who served, people of color who served, had a bigger Target on their back because they represented a bigger threat to the ruling class! After all, these men were trained to fight, they were trained to kill.

    Why should I feel any special obligation to serve any portion of government whatsoever? This is a government that allowed and still is allowing the murder of its so-called minority citizens.

    Maybe this government isn’t all what it’s cracked up to be! Is there anything better? I think there is. So, I worry about what I can do for my fellow man. I don’t need government to spur me on, I do it my conscience dictates, I love god, I love my neighbor, and even my enemies. I don’t judge them, because that’s beyond my pay grade. And I have found many blessings from that!

  13. I am thrilled that there are expanding opportunities for young adults to be involved in community services programs!

    But this sentence from the second paragraph misses an important peice of history. “Too much “community” and we live in a society that demands conformity and ignores fundamental liberties”. If you think about the nineteen fifties, the pressure to conformity was immense, but also starting to break down. The Beat poets started in the nineteen fifties, and Alan Ginsburg’s Howl was published and he was accused of publishing obscenity, but found not guilty. In deed to poem is full of obscene language, but that language is use to describe the obsenities of tghe culture of the 1950s. In the 60s the hippies began to appear, and so did the behive hairdo, which all women seemed to have or want, but thy the ealry to mid seventies, many women were wearing all kinds of different styles of clothing and the designers were following rather than leading. The women’s movement, the LGBT rights movement, the Disability Rights Movement, the antiwar movements all reduced the amount of conformity our society requires. And it has continued, with a few steps backwards every now and again. Conformist religion appears to be dying, and computeres, smart phones and the internet havea allowed people with like interests and concerns to find one another, giving them power to press back against conformity.

    But the final point is that the more we respect on another and one another’s differences, the less important conformity becomes. I attend the Unitarian Universalist (UUs) Community Church in Danville. UUs have not creed. We don’t, won’t tell anyone what to believe, But when Garrison Keillor said that UUs could believe anything we want, he wasn’t being honest. We covenant together to try to loive by 7 principles. The first of those principles is “The inherent Worth and Dignity of Every Person. If your community respects the inherent worth and dignity of every person, then community stops being a threat. The priniciples are about respect and love, and the community that does that does not tell its members how they should live. When I asked Prof Kennedy to speak to us on Freedom, she chose to speak on the tension between freedom and community. In more than one conversation about her talk, people in the church agreed that they felt no loss of freedom whatever from belonging to our community, because we don’t tell people what they should believe or who they should be. Hopefully the implications are obvious.

  14. Anne,

    Sheila is actually right on point with what she said, there is a conflict between freedom and community, but, what type of freedom, or, what type of community?

    It’s kind of like the old adage, birds of a feather! That has a very serious Ring Of Truth to it.

    Those who are bigoted, they tend to flock together, those who feel like Patriots tend to flock together, those who care about the environment tend to flock together, it can go on and on. Supposedly, this country is based on freedom? But it really is not. And, the religious issue? Well, as it states in 2nd Timothy 4: 2 – 4 which reads; “for there will be a period of time when they will not put up with the healthful teaching, but, in accord with their own desires, they will accumulate teachers for themselves to have their ears tickled; and they will turn their ears away from the truth. ”
    This very issue was also brought out in Jeremiah 6:10 or Acts 7:51 or Deuteronomy 29:4 or Romans 11:8

    The apostle Peter actually drew a parallel that was conformed between the house of Israel and early Christianity. He discussed false prophets and destructive sects which have and will ravage both.

    This is brought out in 2 Peter 2: 1 – 3.

    So basically, whether it be politics, which is a community, religion, which is a community, or just particular idealism good or bad, is, community!

    And as being free moral agents, living in a supposed free government, you can choose whatever you believe! You can choose however you want to live! But does that make it okay? Therein lies the rub. When individuals want to be part of something, do they follow the rules? Or do they make up their own? Mostly, folks would rather be hypocrites and make up their own rules and be selective about what they believe, keeping things completely out of context, having their ears tickled!

  15. Too many detractors raise the images of Nazi Youth Corp and America’s anti-American war in Vietnam and the comparisons are no more than false flags.

    Virtually every democracy in Europe also has mandatory service in the public sphere and it does not have to be in the military. Awarding those who complete this public service honorably education benefits should and could be offered. I frequently had professors cite the WWII GI Bill as the best and largest economic stimulus bill in the history of the US. A better educated populous helps all the boats rise as JFK put it.

    I too served in Vietnam, the very end of it, helping evac Saigon and rescue the USS Mayaguez from the Cambodians. the last battle of the Vietnam War that wasn’t even fought in Vietnam. I was awarded five school years under the GI Education Bill which made it possible to earn an Associate, a Bachelors and put me half way through my Masters degree. I could not have otherwise afforded my education. I then was able to continue on earning a doctorate in Occupational and Adult Education.

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