Mandatory National Service? Thanks But No Thanks


If there is one thing that unites the punditocracy, it is their view that young people should have to participate in some kind of "national service." General Stanley McChrystal was the most recent one to float the idea in the Wall Street Journal and at the Aspen Institute, but Michael Gerson on the (kind of) right and E. J. Dionne on the pretending-to-be-center-left both jumped in to talk about what a good idea it was. In fact, when it comes to the punditocracy, none of the "cool" kids are particularly vocal at calling this idea what it is: a bad one.

National service is much more talked about than it is done. The idea is most popular among people who are a bit nostalgic for the good old days when the federal government used to hire teens and twenty-somethings to knock down a few trees. Typically, when a pundit calls for national service, he is almost certain to say at some point that he is not talking about the kind of national service that happened during the Vietnam War. Instead, he's talking about something more vegetarian, like we had during the New Deal.

Truth be told, most of the ideas that are discussed are usually even tamer than that. The Civilian Conservation Corps were extremely popular with Americans at the time, but clearing the woods probably wasn't so popular with Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox. Today, thanks to organizations like the Sierra Club, critters have a vote, and one that keeps the government from forming Civilian Conservation Corps 2.0. Fortunately, today we have plenty of inner-city schools where we can dispatch City Year tutors and Teach for America alums instead.

There are those who get excited about the prospect of volunteering and there are those who have a muted reaction which is neither instinctively for it nor against it. I will include myself in the latter category. While I appreciate the objectives of national service, I have also come to appreciate that typically any difference it makes is on the margins rather than fundamental. But that is also why I am so skeptical of any calls for making it mandatory or "expected."

A lot of people believe that it would make millennials turn off the Game of Thrones episodes and the Jon Stewart reruns so that they can get out and do something with their lives. But anyone who has spent much time around bureaucracies knows that they function much better in theory than in practice.

Usually the military is kept open as one possible avenue for national service. Nonetheless, if young people decided to spend their year in national service in the Army instead of building habitats for rare bullfrogs in the Okefenoke Swamp, they would soon find that they would either be assigned the menial tasks or otherwise spend the majority of their year in the service in training for a military occupational specialty which they would be unlikely to ever put to use.

It is likely that the same would be true of other programs which would be under pressure to process students through quickly. And many young people would have difficulty adapting. In spite of what John Kerry said, it isn't true that the kids who get the bad grades "get stuck in Iraq." The intellectual standards for being in the military today are high compared to the admittedly low standards of our education system. On the other hand, the military is typically less selective than urban rejuvenation programs which are usually so sought after by rich suburban kids.

One thing that many young people do not realize when they enter into their first challenge — whatever that might be — is that the world is often uncooperative and it frustrates ideals. Not that this isn't a good lesson to learn, but it isn't one to take on before you understand your capabilities and core competencies. And, coming out of high school and that room on the second floor of your parents' house, you don't know that — or at least you shouldn't.

That doesn't mean that your first step out of your parents' door should be in the direction of your college dormroom. You might even consider skipping college altogether. Instead, young people should do whatever it takes to test their limitations. A good way to start is by doing all of the things that you don't want to do: Maybe skydiving if you're afraid of heights or hiking if you hate the outdoors. You should try to hitchhike if strangers make you nervous or just get on the road and start driving if you've never been anywhere without your parents before. If you're parents ever made you go to a toy gun bash, it might be good for you to consider a stint in the Marine Corps. If you were a military brat, you might think about spending some time living amidst an Amish community.

The point is, when young people are young, they should take the path of greatest resistance. And they should be encouraged to do so. People calling for mandatory (or "expected") national service probably think that they are doing this, but shifting kids from the oversight of helicopter parents to the oversight of helicopter bureaucracies is probably not the best way to do this. This kind of service could be whatever we want it to be when we talk about it in theory. But, in practice, past experience suggests that it would just be another one or two years of public school with the stated purpose of "serving the national interest". Kids today don't need another year of school. In fact, they might not need all of the years that they have now, especially since many of our most promising students are the ones that drop out