Scott MacKay Commentary: Let's Expand National Service Opportunities

Nov 22, 2017

In a nation divided along partisan political lines, it can feel like few things still bring people together. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay has an idea he says may help. 


Just about everything nowadays is fraught with politics. There are the usual things that polarize –race, gender, sexual orientation, age…and the list goes on. Then there are things that once united us but no longer do –  the national anthem, the evening news, football, even pizza.

Some of us cringe when faced with holiday celebrations. We fear that Uncle Ralph, a stalwart Donald Trump supporter, may linger too long at the egg nog and get into it with Aunt Maureen, who voted for Hillary Clinton.

Our society always had gaps, but we also had institutions that blended Americans. Foremost among them –the military. There was a time when Americans believed that those who benefit from society should share equally in its defense. The institution that enforced this – at least for men—was the military draft.

As recently as World War II, the sons of rich and poor met and mixed during their military service. Pells, Bushes, Roosevelts and Kennedys all served. It wasn’t perfect of course. It wasn’t until after World War II that President Harry Truman finally ended racial segregation in the services.

Then along came the Vietnam War, a corrosive conflict that split the country. The draft was done away with in favor of the all-volunteer army. A volunteer military has the virtue of enlisting those who want to be there, which leads to a stronger military.

Yet something has been lost. Today’s military tends to attract those on the lower end of the economic scale, meaning that too many wealthy people have no contact with military life. The result is a mercenary armed force that doesn’t include as many soldiers and sailors who do their two-year hitch and return to civilian life.

Higher Education, particularly public universities, have long brought together young people from diverse backgrounds. But too often these days high tuition, even at taxpayer-supported institutions, put college beyond the reach of many.

Maybe it’s time to expand national service opportunities for young people.  National service could be linked with education. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo proposed a free tuition plan for the state’s three public colleges. The legislature approved a piece of it—free tuition at the two-year Community College of Rhode Island.

Would lawmakers look more favorably at giving students a tuition break if these students gave a year back to work in state and community service? Students could do that through such programs as City Year, Teach For America or other initiatives that promote good works and bond young people.

Nora Crowley grew up in Cranston and was educated in public schools. She earned degrees at Brandeis and Harvard. Now she is a supervisor at City Year in Providence. Her charges are a mix of young folks taking a year off during college or joining right after high school. This program attracts volunteers from across the racial, economic and gender spectrum.

Those who work together in City Year, focus on mentoring and tutoring in public schools. They learn to work together and view each other as citizens, rather than stereotypes. In Providence, City Year has attracted support from corporations, non-profits and generous individuals.

Too many Americans don’t believe they or other citizens “owe” anything to a country or government they believe ought to first and foremost preserve individual freedom, personal as well as economic.

Yet, as George Orwell so aptly said, “nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism.” How long can a free society survive if its most cherished values are chasing money and worshipping Old Glory?

The current political divides bar any thoughtful consideration of a mandatory form of national service for the young. What is particularly sad is that President Trump’s budget proposal calls for shuttering the Corporation for National and Community Service. This agency operates like a non-profit, providing expertise and financing for AmeriCorps and SeniorCorps. Its annual outlay of about $1 billion is a tiny droplet in the federal budget.

In these times, we could use a dose of civil republicanism – with a small r – that stresses, as philosopher Michael Sandel put it, “a concern for the whole, a moral bond with the community whose fate is at stake.”

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:45 and 8:45 on Morning Edition and at 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our “On Politics” blog at RIPR.org