Rethinking JFK’s “Ask not…..”

“Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”  John F. Kennedy issued that stirring challenge in his inaugural address sixty years ago, in January, 1961.  His words tapped into a wellspring of idealism and inspired many young Americans to join the Peace Corps or get otherwise involved in efforts to ‘improve the world around them.’

Sixty years later, the idea of national service is in the air.  Just over a year ago the non-partisan National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service, which Congress created in 2017, issued its report, “Inspired to Serve,” and on the first Sunday of this month The New York Times devoted its lead editorial to the subject: “A Call to National Service”.  

In addition to reading reports and editorials about national service, I’ve also spoken with a few dozen of its supporters in the past two weeks, and nearly all of them believe that something must be done to pull our badly fractured country together.  National service just might do that, some of them argue cogently and persuasively. And, they say, it must be required because time is running out on our democracy.

That’s the all-important question: Should national service be mandatory? Should every citizen between the ages of 18-30 be required to spend two years in some sort of national service, whether military or otherwise?  

After all, the argument goes, Americans have rights and responsibilities, and shirking those responsibilities should not be allowed.

However, I think we are asking the wrong question. I suggest that it’s time to rewrite JFK’s stirring words. More about that below.

Start with facts: How many of us actually commit to serve our country?  According to the National Commission,

Today, nearly 24 million individuals participate in some form of military, national, or public service to meet critical national needs—security, disaster response, education, conservation, health care, housing, and more.  These efforts are formidable and have transformed lives, communities, and the Nation; but in a country of 329 million, imagine what more could be done if significantly more people were inspired and able to answer the call to serve. 

The National Commission says it discovered that millions more Americans are ready and willing to serve, but the opportunities are not there.  “Inspired to Serve” puts forth 164 recommendations, which the Commission believes will lead more citizens to enter public service, either for a time or as a career.  While the Commission wants to require all 18-year-olds (including women this time) to register for the Selective Service (i.e., the draft), it does not call for mandatory service.  Instead, it hopes that, if the country asks and expects service, it will eventually become a social norm, something ‘everyone’ does as a matter of course.  

In short, it wants us to be inspired–but not required–to serve our country.

When The Times asks about requiring service, it does it somewhat rhetorically:  

What could be objectionable in asking all young people to pause before plunging into the scramble of adult life to donate some of their time and energies to some socially beneficial, critically needed service at home or abroad?

It would be an introduction to the responsibilities of citizenship, a communion with different layers of society and people of different backgrounds, a taste of different life paths. It could even be rewarded by credits toward tuition at a public university or other federal benefits, much as the G.I. Bill did for some veterans in years past.

In the end, however, The Times seems to agree that ‘coerced service is not service.’ Like the Commission, it hopes national service will become a ‘social norm.’

So, like JFK, The Times concludes that we should ask….

Asking young Americans for a year of their time for their country would be a powerful way to inculcate that call to service. It would not be a panacea for America’s troubles, of course. But a year in which barriers of race, class and income were breached, working in areas like under resourced schools, national parks or the military, where the fruits of service were real and beneficial, could help restore a measure of the community, commitment and hope that America cries out for.

I think that national service ought to be a priority of the Biden Administration and the Congress.  Let’s create more opportunities, and let’s provide all sorts of incentives, including financial support for education and training post-service.  I’m certain that many millions of young Americans are eager to do something concrete and significant to support our country. They want to feel that they are contributing to improving the world beyond their own immediate environs.

But don’t JFK’s two statements–“Ask not..” and “Ask..”–seem to imply that a lot of Americans were doing the opposite, expecting handouts while offering little in return?  Takers, not givers?  In the 1980’s President Reagan’s Secretary of Education William Bennett railed against college students for their supposed materialism. Today some politicians are demanding both ‘free college’ and debt loan forgiveness.  Are we in danger of becoming “A nation of takers,” as I have heard a few say?

That’s a red herring, in my view. I think that only a few–the top 1% and the big corporations that dodge taxes–are the takers, paying ridiculously low taxes. Most of us are already giving, or are willing.  

I believe that 2021 demands a different question:  Why does the richest country in the world tolerate treating its least fortunate so poorly?  

Even with the President’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, child poverty is a national disgrace…..or ought to be.  

Everyone paying attention must know that Health care for most poor children is inadequate and often abysmal.  The pandemic revealed the gaping fault lines in educational opportunity, the so-called ‘digital divide’ between rich and poor.

Sadly, grinding poverty is not “new news” in the United States. Michael Harrington famously brought it to our attention in 1962 in “The Other America.”  And today the great Nicolas Kristoff in The New York  Times does his best to keep the issue in front of us.  

So, I propose dumping the “Ask not” and “Ask” formulation and  rewriting JFK thusly: “Ask Why The Richest County in the World Denies Its Least Fortunate Citizens Adequate Health Care, Nutrition, Housing, and Education.”   

Followed by “Now Ask Yourself What You Are Going to Do About It.”

Because there’s plenty we can do, including, of course, national, state, and local service.  

More: Voter registration. Food banks. Tutoring. Local gardens. Anti-racism forums. Habitat for Humanity.  Meals on Wheels. And we can also throw our political support to politicians who will vote for higher taxes on the wealthy, and end to the loopholes that allow big corporations to pay NO taxes at all, and a beefed up IRS to catch tax cheaters.  

The best time to do something about this crisis was years ago. The second best time is now…….

13 thoughts on “Rethinking JFK’s “Ask not…..”

  1. Bravo but I think you next post should address the challenges to actually implement/support national service.

    Joan Lonergan 650-346-8846

    To reach a port, we must sail – sail, not tie at anchor; sail, not drift. Franklin Roosevelt


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Terrific column. Needs to be said and repeated, to give us, particularly young people an alternative to the endless cultural wars and seemingly intractable debates over where we’re all headed as a nation .The Peace Corps inspired a generation of young Americans. Let’s find a way to do so again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, John. Like millions of young people, I was inspired by JFK. I was accepted into Teachers East Africa, a precursor to the Peace Corps that eventually merged into it. I was assigned to teach English in Kenya, but in the spring term of my senior year at Dartmouth I badly damaged my back, failed the physical, and had spinal fusion surgery right after graduation. That was a great disappointment, and I did not get to Kenya until 2018! Ended up teaching HS in Port Washington, NY, that fall instead..


  3. I used to believe in universal military or public service. I have spent over 32 years as a teacher and I consider most of my work a public service. I also volunteered for Military Service and served honorably in the Marines. One think I liked and admired about the Marines was that every one there was there voluntarily and morale was high. I wouldn’t want to serve in harm’s way with slackers. And speaking of teaching or the Peace Corps these were all voluntary endeavors. I have come to oppose national service very strongly. Why? Because it does not differentiate between genders and family needs. Any society which would forcibly recruit young women and mothers into the military and national service would essentially destroy families and destroy the private life. We should give incentives to do national service -scholarships, tax breaks,and honors. But in a free society it should never be mandatory. That it the way of the Totalitarian Temptation the way of the Bold State. I have always believed in universal free public education but at the same time, I defend the rights of parents to choose private schools and home schools. They do not make these choices lightly and of course I have known many parents who taught their kids k-8 in homeschool and then 9-12 and JC they went to public schools. If I lived in certain neighborhoods I would forbid my own children and grandchildren to attend public schools because they have become engines of retention, violence, anti-intellectualism. That is just a fact (in some places). If we are to have reform and a better society we have to tell the truth about our challenges and problems. Public schools have great challenges and responses. Distance learning may transform American education. It certainly opens many alternatives to traditional k-12 schools etc.

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  4. Terrific essay John. Like you, I was inspired by JFK and spent most of my life teaching (still am) and trying to bring forth our better angels. Our fellow classmate, Bob Taft, did serve in the Peace Corps, maybe other classmates too? As you and Richard Munro suggest, I think service needs to be voluntary to be service, but I’m all in favor of rewarding it in those several ways mentioned.

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  5. I would absolutely require service from all but the seriously disabled.

    My time in the service (1963) was Amazingly I was in a barracks with young guys from All over America Service is a great leveler and eye opener. Two guys in my group were from the South, one white and one African American, whose accents were so thick they pretty much could only talk with one another. It was wonderful to watch

    Whether it be Peace Corps, VISTA, or any other service to those around us, it changes young perspectives and myopias invariably

    Great column, John

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Thx, John, I agree that the 2 questions you pose should be asked, and answered by every American.

    60 years ago at age 12, I participated in my first demonstration/march. It was a Fair Housing March in Wichita, Kansas. Some people threw rocks at us. I was frightened. An elderly African American woman noticed, put her arm around me and told me it would be ok. Then she recited Langston Hughes incredible poem, “Mother to Son” (Spoken her by Viola Davis

    That experience, 60 years ago, had a huge impact on the rest of my life – trying to respond to your two great questions, Here’s a link to a column published by a number of Mn newspapers describing that march and encouraging youngsters and families to march.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. John, it is a wonderful thought provoking column. However, I disagree. I believe service should be a duty of citizenship, like jury service. It is an expression of the heart of mutual accountability to one another as a community. I believe mutual accountability is at the heart of a democracy. The argument against national service that infringes our freedom sounds to me too much like it is an infringement of our freedom to not wear a mask, to not be vaccinated. As so many are saying today, I do not agree that we should be free to care only about ourselves and not others and contribute to the infection of others. Freedom includes the obligation to act responsibly

    As you know, I think service learning should be one of the requirements of high school graduation. Learning and practicing good citizenship is at least as important as the other things we require. I really do believe that schooling should prepare students for college, career and citizenship. Learning by doing is such a strong pedagogical strategy. When I refer to citizenship, I refer to the myriad of ways we strengthen our life together, our lives as citizens. I do not refer to learning that there are three branches of the government. I also think that within parameters respecting equity, religion, etc, students should have the opportunity to design their own service learning activities that meet certain standards that cut across politics and ideology. As you remember from Philadelphia, we developed service learning standards that also led to very interesting new ways of thinking about assessment that had nothing to do with paper and pencil tests but, rather, with analysis, thinking, problem solving, working together. We provided in-depth professional development for thousands of teachers.

    Anyway, just another point of view and always glad to see in my inbox that another edition of the Merrow Report has arrived.


    • David, we agree 100% about the value of service-learning. Does Philly still use the standards and assessments that you and your colleagues developed? Are they available?


      • Joe, they do not still use them as far as I know. The service leaning was among a number of initiatives we took that were abandoned by those who followed my tenure. I will check in with the man who ran all of that for me to see what we might dredge up…it’s been 21 years. It’s actually been 45 years this year since I proposed “community service” as a grad requirement in Maryland. Initially the State Board agreed to require districts to offer community service for credit but not as a requirement for students. The most notable opposition were board members who said that “community service is not service if it is not voluntary” or another who observed that “community service is what we sentence criminals to do and since we don’t want our kids to be criminals, we must not require community service” and still another who said it was unconstitutional as it violated the prohibition of involuntary servitude. Not all of my board members were at the top of their class. The politics changed in the next two decades and in the early 90s with the support of William Donald Schaefer, a certain number of community service hours became a requirement. I think MD is still the only state with such a requirement. I long ago concluded that an hours requirement, while better than no requirement is not particularly worthy of aspiration. That’s why my own language has changed to service learning and why we emphasized standards and more authentic assessment in Philly. Service learning is particularly conducive to project learning and other approaches to learning by doing. I’ll get back to you after I touch base with my colleague from long ago, Kenny Holdsman.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. i love your tag line “The best time to do something about this crisis was years ago. The second best time is now”


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