This is the eighth in the series, A Soft Landing, which explores how we might achieve a more just, equitable society without violent revolution.
Americans are quick to claim our rights and we are slow to fulfill our responsibilities.
That’s my logline for the state of our nation, an imbalance that permeates every level of our culture, our economy, and our government.
We are hasty to proclaim micro-aggressions, yet slow to bestow the benefit of the doubt; swift at making a buck, while tardy in owning the full cost of our excess; agile at legislating benefits, yet allergic to paying for them.
This dissonance is, I believe, a logical outcome of an affluent, consumption-based society addicted to the myth of individualism. It’s also the root of our social isolation, income inequality, and disdain for government.
The more our affluence and technology allow us to communicate, interact, and live in closed bubbles, the deeper our divisions. In order to achieve a soft landing, we have to bridge these divides. One important way to do this is through universal service.
What do I mean by ‘universal service’?
Universal means everyone participates. Everyone: every American between the ages of 18 and 24, for two years, with no exceptions. Girl genius, developmentally disabled youth, youthful felon, or son of a Senator; no one is exempt.
Service means interaction beyond our comfort zone. I envision a variety of options from which people can choose: the military, Peace Corps, and Americorps to start; additional varieties will evolve in time. Every youth has to reside in a new place and engage in new activities, preferably among people with different perspectives.
Our closest precedent for universal service is the Works Progress Administration within FDR’s New Deal. Like the WPA, universal service may offer benefits not bestowed by the private sector (CCC’s hiking trails). It may offer artistic and cultural opportunities (FSA photography). It may even offer direct economic benefits (rooftop solar could be our new Cooley dam).
But the primary aim of universal service will not be economic output; rather it will be social cohesion. Universal service will set different types of Americans side-by-side in a conscious effort to illustrate our differences as a route to helping us appreciate them. Universal service will create better-informed, engaged, empathetic citizens.
Patriots earn our rights when we step up to our responsibilities.
I have friends in Spain who had to do two years of nationally required community service in a system like you describe. That was in turn for their college education. Both now have Ph.Ds.
Thanks for sharing this insight. The value to volunteers is immeasurable.