I have a dream.
Okay, it’s not as good as the Rev. Martin Luther King’s dream. His was a most excellent dream. It’s really difficult for any dream to compete with one in which the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners are all sitting down together at the table of brotherhood. That’s some seriously fine dreaming, right there. It remains only a dream, of course, but nobody can deny the quality of the dreaming involved.
My dream is less ambitious than Dr. King’s, though it’s equally unlikely to come to pass. Almost everybody will say they support Dr. King’s dream — even if they don’t. Very few would support my dream. Still, I think it’s a perfectly fine dream and I like it.
Here’s my dream: reinstate the draft.
No, seriously, that’s my dream. Conscription. Not military conscription, but conscription for national service. I would like for every citizen in the United States to perform two years of mandatory national service.
That’s right, mandatory. All those folks who talk about how great this nation is, I’d like them to actually put some skin in the game. Talk is cheap and all that. And all those folks who talk about how lousy this nation is, I want to give them an opportunity to improve it. It’s easy to complain. Actually fixing stuff is inconvenient.
Two years of service. I don’t care what sort of service they engage in. I don’t care if they spend a couple of years working in the national parks, or helping old folks, or rebuilding roads and bridges and dams, or assisting in archaeological digs, or researching a cure for breast cancer, or documenting historic buildings, or restoring native prairie grasses, or updating and upgrading FBI computer systems, or responding to natural disasters, or painting murals in post offices, or cleaning beaches befouled with pollution, or gathering oral histories of the people who built the Alaskan Highway, or earthquake-proofing old structures, or teaching and promoting traditional rural arts and crafts, or cataloging beetles at the Smithsonian, or yeah — carrying a weapon and walking a post in Afghanistan.
Two years of service, right out of high school. Would it fuck up the career plans of some folks? Yeah, sure it would. But mostly it would fuck up the career plans of the privileged classes — and let’s face it, their privilege would survive and they’d still have lots of advantages over ordinary folks. Giving up a couple of years to improve the nation that gave them their privilege isn’t asking too much.
Two years of service, without exception (aside for extreme physical, psychological, or emotional disability). Two years, no deferments and damned few exemptions. College can wait. Only child of disabled parents? There’s bound to be some sort of national service that can be served locally. Doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from or what your situation is, there’s stuff you can do to improve and support the nation.
The photographs here illustrate projects sponsored by the Work Projects Administration back in the 1930s and 40s. It was essentially an employment project, and over its lifetime it employed millions of people to engage in all manner of public works. Most of the work back then involved unskilled labor — building roads and all that. But they also employed artists and musicians and writers and actors to create and perform and document works of art for public consumption. People did things that were worthwhile.
The people employed by the WPA were just looking for work, of course. They needed a job. My dream would simply shift the motivation behind the work. It would be less about needing to make a buck and put food on the table, and more about providing a national service.
That’s it, that’s my dream. Two years of service. Two years serving other folks, serving something larger than personal interests, serving the nation. It’s not too much to ask; it may be too much to expect.
Which is why it’s a dream.
I have had many conversations with students about this dream. Earlier in my career when students were still rather untainted by ideological arguments, they we generally open to the idea.
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I think most young folks would be open to the idea, so long as it could be implemented fairly. One of the problems with military conscription was preferential treatment — because a lot of rich and powerful folks objected to sending their kids off to get shot at.
There’s no such thing as an entirely fair system, but I think by widening the options a service conscription could be a lot closer to fair.
That’s a dang fine dream, and I hope someday it comes true. The WPA got an amazing amount of work done… including the construction of the library in my tiny home town.
I’d like to add my in-the-same-vein dream to yours: all high school students should be required to spend a year (or at least a semester) abroad. Get them out of the confines of our borders and see firsthand that there are other places, people, viewpoints and ways of doing things. A few months immersed in another culture, being the “outsider”, having to get by in another language and deal with local customs, would help develop empathy and diplomacy, and make them realize that although our country is pretty great, we’re not the center of the universe.
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I agree, it would be great if young folks could spend time abroad. That said, one of the things that made my own military service rewarding was the diversity of the people I lived and worked with.
It’s one of the few things military movies get right — the broad spectrum of people who have to learn to rely on each other. It’s something of a cliche, but when white New England farm kids have to form a team with Latino kids from New Mexico and shit-kickers from Texas and street kids from Detroit, every prejudice gets tested. It doesn’t mean the prejudices go away, of course, but as you say, just being exposed to other people and they way they live and think is educational.
As much as I disliked being in the military, it was overall a good experience.
While it doesn’t equate to spending a semester or a year abroad, I enjoy taking students on international travel adventures, usually 9-10 days. The experience, even on such a small window of time, has an effect on these kids. Often, these kids then search out experiences abroad.
I like that dream. It could also help bridge the gap for students between going from high school off to college with no freakin’ clue about what they want to do with their lives or how to function as an adult. Service can really help you get out of your own privilege and see a wider world. At least here in our school district, high school kids are required to put in a sizable number of service hours in the community in order to graduate from high school. It’s a small step in the right direction, I think.
Yes, I do think it would help a lot of folks get out of their privilege, as you put it. But it was also helpful for those of us from poor and working class families to witness the benefits of privilege — and to be in an environment in which privilege can be earned rather than awarded by birth.
Greg, I support your dream whole-heartedly. I come from a more or less privileged background, and after high school I took what is now called a ‘gap year’. I would have killed to have some kind of national service during that time, such as the WPA or the CCC. As it was, it turned out to be a good experience for me, but people looked askance, wondering what I was doing with my life. It would be easier if we were all doing it.
We have a lot of WPA works in Maryland, including I’m pretty sure the mural painted on the wall of my old local post office. It’s cool stuff and it has enduring public value. That’s the beauty of national service projects.
I’m just shy of 50 and would be too old for such service, but I’d love it for my kids.
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Also, MLK had been in my awareness lately, so thanks for your contribution to that.