“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…….