Monday, September 17, 2007

Compulsory service an issue worth discussing

(Published 6/6/07)

New Hampshire was the scene Sunday of yet another painfully early and overly crowded presidential debate.

These early debates are usually useless for anything else than giving the candidates opportunities to catch each other in what may become "gotchas" later in the campaign.

But this debate actually included an interesting question.

It came from an 18-year-old student who will graduate from high school this summer. He spent last summer in Germany with a family whose oldest son was "completing his one year of mandatory service to his country." The young man asked the candidates whether they would support such a policy and if so, how they would make it happen.

Former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel was first to answer.

Gravel said the country doesn’t need the draft, but he would prefer to see a voluntary system "where young people would have an opportunity to render public service," in the military, Peace Corps or Americorps.

Isn’t that what we have now? I thought.

Then, presumably out of instinct, and - well, this was a Democratic debate, after all - Gravel proposed yet another crippling government entitlement program:

"And then for every year that you serve, we’ll give you four years of school free. That would give you an incentive to move forward and do something about education in this country."

I was confused. Gravel extolled the virtues of volunteerism but apparently doesn’t think those virtues are virtuous enough to draw people on their own.

I fought the urge to change the channel when U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich led off his answer by comparing himself to John F. Kennedy.

He went on to agree with Gravel’s volunteer approach but didn’t mention the service-for-school proposal.
U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd agreed that the draft isn’t needed and said, "But I like the idea ... to provide the kind of financial relief."

Did he mean he agreed with Gravel’s proposal? It wasn’t clear.

Then Dodd made a statement about "the rip-offs that are occurring - with people manipulating through deceit and fraud - the student loan programs."

Hold on. Why would someone concerned about student loan fraud support the creation of a new program that increases the opportunities for fraud?

We don’t know what frontrunners U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton or U.S. Sen. Barack Obama think about this; they didn’t offer opinions.

But I wish they had. I think it’s an interesting concept to require a year of service - not necessarily military service, but some sort of service to the country - of young people leaving high school.

It makes sense that the advantages to the nation, and to those volunteering, would be multiplied if everyone participated.

In addition to the obvious benefit of investing a year of their lives for the good of their country, young people might find career opportunities they never dreamed existed. (How many high schoolers know what Americorps is, for example?)

And those who entered college after their year of service, in addition to being a year older, would likely be better disciplined and better able to handle the freedoms that come with college life. Think about how that would improve college retention rates - and what it could do for those student-loan fraud concerns.

Think of how it would impact the worldview of young people - and what that would mean for their political involvement.

Wait - maybe that’s why politicians shy away from the idea.

Is the Land of Opportunity worthy of a year of service from its young citizens? It’s something worth discussing over the next 17 months.

No comments: