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Over the past few weeks, I’ve learned that almost everyone takes some time to absorb new ideas, especially a big one like a second Constitutional Convention. The hidebound nature of humanity, and the deep polarization that currently exists in American society, make most people inherently suspicious of any novel proposal. That’s understandable, but I hope that as people think and read further about the subject, they’ll see that we can take a good system and make it better–not today or tomorrow in a rushed manner, but after a long period of thoughtful discussion and debate that could last a generation.

The opposite alternative–to do nothing, to stand pat, to say we don’t trust ourselves and our fellow citizens to achieve constructive change–is not only depressing, it’s wrong and dangerous. Societies that stop evolving and progressing are doomed. There are ways to evolve and progress outside the Constitution, of course, but the basic document of state must be a part of this forward-looking process.

In this column, I’d like to talk a little bit about my idea for a “Bill of Responsibilities” to match the Bill of Rights, specifically, the addition of a requirement that every able-bodied person between the ages of 18 and 26 give two years to Universal National Service (UNS). The military branches are one option, of course, but so too would be some civilian agencies such as Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. New groups, including a Disaster Strike Force (think Katrina), would be a part of the UNS menu. I also add all qualifying non-profit groups, such as Teach for America, which are non-governmental but offer the young solid alternatives for service.

UNS will appeal to the idealists–there are still some, aren’t there?–and will offend libertarians. But in A More Perfect Constitution I try to make a strong case for national service. You’ll have to be the judge once you read the full chapter in the book.

I’d also like to thank the hundreds and hundreds of you who have commented, emailed or gone to our website, I wish I could respond to all of them personally, but you’ve proven that there are a lot of good ideas to be considered, not just the twenty-three I suggest in the book. That is my purpose, to get a debate started so that others will be encouraged to participate.

Universal National Service

No adult American alive on January 20, 1961, will ever forget the stirring words of President John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” The nation’s young leader thus captured the spirit of a new generation. Today a hardened and cynical generation that has endured Vietnam, Watergate, 9/11, and other soul-depressing events since JFK’s assassination still accepts the promise of personal initiative, but shared sacrifice has become a lesser-known concept for many. We have it within our power to change this, and to go back to the future. An updated Constitution can fuel America’s transformation into a society that once again fulfills Kennedy’s vision.

The best means available would be a constitutional requirement that all able-bodied Americans devote at least two years of their lives to the service of their nation. The charge must be broad, and the civilian and military options must be many, to accommodate the varied talents of the population and the diverse dictates of conscience. But the principle must be immutable: Enjoying the benefits of living in a great democracy is not a God-given right. In exchange for the privileges of American citizenship, every individual has obligations to meet, promises to their fellow citizens and posterity to keep.

Universal National Service (UNS) would be a kind of Bill of Responsibilities, a useful complement to the Bill of Rights. A simple but powerful constitutional clause would decree that “all citizens of the United States, who are of sound mind and body, shall be required to give two years of service to their country, in a manner prescribed by law.” Normally, the service would be discharged between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six, but Congress could provide for delay for reasons of health or special family situations.

There is no time in life quite like the late teens and early twenties. Many young people are bursting with energy, a sense of adventure, and an idealistic determination to make the world a better place. Not yet careworn, rarely cynical, and infused with a belief (sometimes naïve, sometimes accurate) that they can find a better way, the young seek out opportunities to strut their stuff and make a difference. As a college teacher for three decades, I can personally and happily testify to this reality.

But the most motivated and capable of the young–at least those who choose the path of higher education–are also highly competitive, insistent on keeping up with their peers and finding success. Lest they be left behind, they push themselves quickly from high school to undergraduate college to graduate school to a good job. Public service is restricted in most cases to a bit of volunteer work in extracurricular activities. There is no expectation in our society now that any significant service is owed. Yet in the decades of the draft, until the debacle of Vietnam, millions of young men willingly accepted the mandate of military service and planned their private lives and future careers around it. The expectation of national service, once the mandate is reestablished, can again become part of the rhythm of life for the young. The adjustment will be far easier than critics imagine, because of both the adaptability and idealism of youthful Americans.

The keys to a successful mandate for national service are: true universality; flexibility of timing; a wide choice of service opportunities to fit every taste, with a mixture of government service corps (both military and civilian) and private, nonprofit sector activity; appropriate incentives and rewards, especially for military service; and special provisions for older Americans and new immigrants.

The disasters of the draft loopholes of the Vietnam era go to show the importance of a truly universal system of national service. All Americans, regardless of their level of prosperity or connections, should bear the responsibility of service. Any system that further divides the nation between rich and poor would be entirely counterproductive to the aims of UNS.

Even though everyone should have to serve, not every young citizen goes through life at the same pace. Registering for service should be mandatory at age seventeen, and replace selective service registration for males. But not all young people should be expected to complete their obligation directly out of high school. For many, a break in the middle of college would prevent burnout; for others, taking two years after graduation would serve as an eye-opening experience before going on to graduate or professional school. The only end-date requirement on national service should be mandatory completion by age 26 (with appropriate leeway being granted for extreme circumstances).

The range of service opportunities should represent the diverse interests and goals of the young people who will fulfill them. Many young men and women feel a desire to take up arms in defense of their nation. Others are drawn to mentoring underprivileged children. Still others see their talents being best used to fight disease or hunger. Each and every young person should be able to find an outlet for their desire to serve. All sorts of agencies, from the military to the Peace Corps to Big Brothers/Big Sisters, should be available for fulfilling national service requirements. New organizations could also be created, such as a revived Civilian Conservation Corps, or a National Disaster Strike Force that would accompany FEMA and others to assist in disaster recovery.

This requirement for national service would not be the same as conscription; for any such system to work properly there must be adequate compensations in place for the scores of young people who will serve. Paying minimum wage, while still providing health care, life insurance, and disability insurance, would help keep costs down for taxpayers. There would, of course, be exceptions to this minimum wage pay for those who choose military service; the training and hardships of the military justify greater compensation. Serving in the military should carry with it guarantees of educational stipends after completion, as well as comprehensive health care for these soldiers and their families.

The benefits, both tangible and emotional, of national service should not be restricted to just young Americans. The Peace Corps has drawn in scores of retirees through its history. In fact, Jimmy Carter’s mother, Lillian, volunteered at age sixty-eight and spent two years working with lepers in India. Able-bodied volunteers from all stages of life should be allowed to participate as they see fit; certainly their inclusion would enhance the experience for all participants, young and old. The opportunity should also be extended to legal immigrants, especially those who have recently become citizens, as a chance to serve their new nation.

Universal national service is less about governmental authority and more about a renewal of personal citizenship through sustained individual commitment to improving the nation. Here, we return to the young. That they and the nation need this civic renewal is unquestioned. What surprises many is that most young Americans quickly warm to the idea of national service. They sense that something vital is missing from their own pressured lives, where they are hurried from one private achievement to the next, with barely a breath taken. They yearn for a broadening, unselfish experience shared by all in their age group. It is quite possible that a new generation of young Americans will one day ask one another with pride, “Where did you do your national service?” just as the “greatest generation,” who fought and won World War II, traded stories throughout their lives of common youthful sacrifice and service.

Those early trials shaped their worldview, one reflected by Winston Churchill, who once observed, “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” Many veterans of the Second World War took Churchill’s philosophy to heart and were consistently civic oriented and community minded–a passion they passed down to their children. Through universal national service, and its prominent placement in a new Constitution for the twenty-first century, we can light that fire again and pass the torch from generation to generation.