imagePresidential campaigns always seem to revive the debate about national service. Candidates, pundits, and we mere mortals again argue about its legitimacy and whether it ought be voluntary or compulsory. What usually gets missed, however, is the message that’s sent when the only price government asks us to pay is taxes and user fees. 

Most of us, I believe, want to live in neighborhoods, in communities, in societies where people care about one another. Whatever our political ideology, we want to see ourselves as compassionate and in some way as serving to help one another. Many of us learn an ethos of service—to be good neighbors, good citizens, good people, through our families and friends, through faith-based and other local institutions; but some of us don’t. 

Our schools have a role in teaching us about service. That’s part of the function of education; its purpose is to do more than try to develop our intellect and the skills we need for economic success.  Part of the role of schooling is to build character, to teach civics, to turn out good citizens, the kinds of people we want for neighbors. That’s why I think it’s as legitimate for schools to require service as it is for them to require reading, writing and arithmetic. It’s a way for them to teach and it’s something for them to teach.

Compulsory national service can also be, I believe, an important, legitimate, and reasonable expectation for citizens made by their government and by one another. If our only obligation is to pay taxes and user fees, then as citizens, we are reduced to little more than consumers of government services, to being government’s customers.  Rather, citizens are government’s owners—and owners know that in spite of your staff, every once in a while you have to roll up your sleeves, get in there, and do some hard work.

Whatever particular form it might take, mandatory national service changes the relationship between people and their government.  Rather than being passive consumers grumbling about what we do or don’t get for our tax dollars, or about the politicians from whom we feel disconnected, we’re more likely to demand accountability from elected leaders who are making decisions that affect how months or years of our lives might be spent in service to society.  As people become more immediately and personally invested in our communities, more engaged in the broader world through our direct labor, we’re more likely to feel vested in ownership of our government and to take it seriously. So, besides learning more about helping one another, actually building stronger communities and serving society, we’d become more active citizens. And that’s a good thing.

Let the debate continue…

Photo: Led by City Year corps members, volunteers paint a map of the U.S. on a playground in Harlem. (Photo courtesy of Jim Harrison)

image Mark Rosenman is a public service professor at the Union Institute & University, where he has long worked in various roles. He sees his 20-plus years of initiative to strengthen the nonprofit sector as an extension of earlier professional efforts in the civil rights movement, urban anti-poverty work, international and domestic program development, and higher education.