Recommending two years of compulsory service

Studies, reports, books, published proceedings, proposed bills, conferences, and seminars -- all are suggesting what young people aged 16 to 26 ought to be doing. One reason, perhaps not the most important but certainly the most urgent , is the fact that unemployment is so very high in this age group, particularly among youth who do not complete 12 years of schooling.

While there are many suggestions, several of them complementing one another, there is one strong difference of opinion separating the most thoughtful and concerned. Should whatever it is that 16-to-26-year-olds do be voluntary (e.g., the Peace Corps), or should it be compulsory (e.g., the military draft)?

There are those who see the breaking of illiteracy in the United States (estimated at upwards of 50 million adults) as the work of a voluntary force made up primarily of young people and a scattering of senior citizens.

There are those who feel that every young person should give two years of service to some community need -- again, as a paid volunteer.

And there is yet another set of equally dedicated educators and community leaders who feel that everyone 16 to 26 years old should be drafted for a two-year stint and given the opportunity to serve in the armed forces or to work in some community service project, including such overseas activities as the Peace Corps.

I'm going to come down on the side of compulsory service, which will put me on the opposite side of the issue from many educators and legislators for whom I have the highest regard.

If hundreds of thousands of adults were already involved in volunteer activities full time and drawing with them their own children and their neighbors' children, then I would agree that a volunteer force would be far superior to some enforced draft.

But few parents now teach their youngsters to combine their own work, school, and play activities with service projects to benefit others. Hence, to try to begin a nationwide service component among 16-to-26-year-olds seems more than a Herculean task.

All of which suggests a different plan to me. I would argue that all 16 -year-olds, sometime after their 15th birthday and before their 16th, must register with their local service organization. With that registration, they would receive a booklet outlining the options open to them for two consecutive years of service work in military or nonmilitary activities.

And sometime after their 16th birthday and before their 17th, they must indicate their order of preference for the available options, and indicate in which two-year period they intend to serve.

This makes it possible for the 16-year-old who is not doing academically well in high school and who wants to drop out to move into a service sector in which he would be trained, and in which he would serve until the age of 18. School and community counselors would certainly want to help such a youngster learn a skill, which should be transferable after his two years of service to full-time employment.

We can imagine, for example, the rural young man or woman who is trained in wood cutting and beginning forest management, who might serve two years in a state forestry program. Learning how to care for and repair wood-cutting equipment, how to complete work assignments, and to provide service would do much to ease such youngsters into the maintstream of productive employment. Or even back into school, if they learned in the two years of service that they would like (and need) more schooling.

The youngster, on the other hand, who is not only doing well in school but wants to go on to college after high school can put off his two years of service until he feels ready to do it. It is certainly possible to imagine that many students would want to go through the admissions process during their senior year in high school and then, once accepted at the college of their choice, ask for two years' deferment.

Or another student might want to go for two years to a junior college and then spend two years in service before making that "final" decision of what field to specialize in.

Would such a required two years of service, meet the needs of the military? In other words, would enough of the brighter, more capable, officer-material 16 -to-26-year- olds choose to serve in the military? Indications are that they would.

I feel this would be particularly true if the military offered a four-year service stint that included (for those extra two years) equivalent GI benefits toward further education after service.

This would make it possible for the 18-year-old high school graduate to serve in the military until the age of 22 and then, using his service benefits, begins college expense-free.

There are other young people, particularly those interested in completing professional school first, who might give their two years of service starting at the last possible date -- their 26th birthday. The lawyer might serve in a legal-aid office, the doctor in a public-health clinic, the business school graduate in a service organization office, and so forth.

We can be sure that if all 16-to-26-year-olds provided the nation with two years of service, this concept of service would reach out to adults at all age levels. We can certainly envision hundreds of community projects blending so-called senior citizens with service-oriented youth -- and certainly at great benefit to the material as well as the spiritual strength of the nation.

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