…I used this title before for an Examiner column, but it’s appropriate here as well.
Conservative heads are spinning (including Jonah Goldberg in the LAT, who calls it “slavery”) over Obama’s national service proposal. Personally, I don’t think it goes far enough. No, I’m serious.
OK, I’ll wait a moment for my conservative readers to get to their smelling salts.
Recall that one of my great concerns (one shared by several of the Founders) is the stratification of American society. Our social compact only works when we all accept that we’re all in this together, with the push and pull that comes when we realize that we really do sometimes have to “Join or Die” as the flag in the credits for ‘John Adams’ suggests.
You’ll notice that social mobility in the US is declining, as families like ours (and richer families) manage to hand off the social capital of good upbringings and good education – as well as real capital – to our kids.
In today’s society, there are really two arenas where there is significant mixing between the classes – public education and the military. One reason why I am so unwilling to give up on public education (even if some liberal friends don’t like my hypothetical solutions) is that I think it vital that the children of the well-off get raised alongside the children of the rich and the children of the poor to then extent we can do so. Our sons benefited hugely from being raised in a public school system (an excellent one) that nonetheless contains a mixture of wealthy kids, upper-middle-class kids, plain middle-class kids and some blue-collar kids. By comparison, the kids of my friends who are getting ‘better’ education in private schools are – I believe – coming out worse for the experience.
My son who is in the Army is profiting, as well, from meeting and mingling with a bunch of different kinds of people.
The question is how, in a country as large as ours, we maintain some public space and maintain enough social equality to ensure that all have at least some measure of access to that space. In my mind, that’s a legitimate concern for the state – because it is central to the state’s self-preservation as a Republic.
I believe that preserving the Republic ought to be a project dear to conservatives as well as liberals, and that to do so liberals must sacrifice some of the equality that is their ideal, and conservatives some of the freedom from coercion.
I don’t believe that by pushing people toward public school (without Draconian mandates), we’re somehow ‘enslaving’ children. Note that this doesn’t mean I’m completely happy with the quality of education, or that we don’t need to fight to make the schools better. But I have no ideological barrier to public schools, and I share the value of enshrining them close to the heart of our communities.
I’d like to see this principle extended, and based on raising my own sons, think that taking a year or two between high school and college to do some kind of public service would be a good thing for most kids. Some might choose to join the military. Others would perform other kinds of community service. Those who needed it might attend two years of an academic boot camp, designed to make sure they could read and calculate effectively when they got out. We’d have a surplus of undertrained 18 year olds afoot, and we’d have to figure out things to do with them. Parks need supervision, community organizations need workers, much of it – like the WPA – will be make-work. But to a big extent, that might be a better thing than paying universities to babysit them.
Some kind of ‘basic GI bill’ provides educational benefits for those who have completed it, and some kind of extension of the VA provides some basic level of lifetime health care.
Should it be mandatory? Don’t know there it gets tough. Would I give preferences to encourage people to do it? Clear preference at state junior and four-year colleges to those who’d done it? Absolutely. OK, discuss away. Me, I’m cooking tri-tip.