Paula S. Fass: Young Americans need required national service

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Hillary Clinton has advertised her concerns for children and has a long track record of supporting policies on their behalf, and almost all Democratic candidates as well as President Obama have urged that college be made more affordable. But no candidate has addressed a critical question: What do young Americans between 18 and 21 need? Indeed, the absence of the problems of youth from the campaign is notable. But youth’s increasing frustration with business as usual has emerged in this long campaign season in a variety of ways, not least in their unhappiness with establishment candidates. Candidates who are even semi-conscious of the problems faced by America’s youth have all put their emphasis on more schooling (President Obama), free tuition at public colleges (Bernie Sanders) or more generous Pell Grants (Hillary Clinton). I want to propose that this presidential election cycle is missing the point and seriously out of touch with the problems of youth.

Schooling is not the solution and while the current proposals may create slightly more opportunity, it is still the same game – a schooling game that is in many ways the basis of the problem. Most young people today see schooling as rigged; something to be manipulated by them or against them; something that often leads nowhere. Schooling goes on forever and makes them dependent on their parents for a long time. It does not necessarily lead to jobs they value.

Young people – let’s call them young adults—are eager for meaning, for something to help define them as mature. They are eager for work. Yes, work. Only in the last one hundred years have we assumed that work is bad for young people. And certainly for seven or eight year olds or even fourteen year olds, to work in factories or sweat shops is very bad. But work that brings a sense of personal reward, camaraderie, and a means to cut through what many young people see as the boredom of school-based abstraction, is just what most American young people need.

Of course, it has to be the right kind of work that will result in more equality, not less, the kind that gives its participants a sense of genuine achievement. So I am proposing that our presidential candidates consider two years of required national service for all young Americans between 18 and 21 years of age. Some of these youth will elect to go into the armed forces, some could help to preserve and enrich the natural environment (as they did during the New Deal); others could serve as tutors in schools and community centers. Some might even feel that their time and energy might best be served by building houses for the poor or good water pipes in communities whose infrastructure is crumbling (think Flint). Others could help old people learn how to use the web. We know that we as a society need these services. I would argue that young Americans would be given a sense of maturity and competence by providing them. Instead of sending high school students out to do community service to pad their resumes, or juvenile prisoners out to clean the highways, let’s give young people a sense of common purpose.

This service should, of course, be paid. Young people like to earn money and this would provide them with a means to gain a certain measure of independence from their parents. They could then use the money to pay for tuition, invest in a business, save for a down payment on a house or apartment – all things that will give them independence. But the monetary benefit is only one of its many results. Young people would meet others from very different class, racial and ethnic backgrounds. National service would help to level the field (away from advantages provided by parents) and make the young much more aware of what they share with those who are not privileged. This was one of the objectives behind the development of common schools. Today’s young inherit too much from their parents – both advantages and disadvantages. National service would serve as a leveler of parental advantages and a liberator from dependence on parents.

There is another type of equality that national service would provide too often overlooked: It would allow non-academically inclined students to shine in ways that today’s emphasis on schooled skills has completely obscured. Many young people have real talents though they are not good at sitting still. No amount of Ritalin can deal with the differences of temperament and inclination that are common to youth. Active work in which building a house is seen as quite as valuable as tutoring math or writing would allow for talents of all kinds to be acknowledged as a social good, and rewarded at a point in life when this can be an extraordinary boost to personal growth.

I know that many people will contend that there are all kinds of obstacles to this plan, but I think it is so important to address the many serious problems of today’s young people – some of them the result of the way we have organized schooling—that these can be overcome with enough imagination and skill. National service will benefit young people, our society, and our future.

FassPaula S. Fass is professor of the Graduate School and the Margaret Byrne Professor of History Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley. The author of Kidnapped and Children of a New World, she recently edited The Routledge History of Childhood in the Western World. Her most recent book is The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child. Fass lives in Berkeley, California.