Opinion

Obama can instill civic responsibility – through a mandatory Youth Corps

The times call for a regeneration, not just a feel-good tweak.

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Even though it's been less than a week since Barak Obama's inauguration speech, much has already been said, broadcast, and written about the new president's call for service and for his focus on " a new era of responsibility." With that in mind, perhaps there's a responsibility seed that could be sown in President Obama's 100-day honeymoon period.

Here's what such a seed might resemble: Every young American citizen, once he or she graduated from high school, would have the responsibility to complete two years of public service. National need would define the nature of such service, but at any given time the variety of jobs likely would be in education, infrastructure repair and maintenance, construction, healthcare, the military, and the arts, for example. Participants, most age 18 to 20, would be provided with room and board and given minimum wage during this two-year period.

In exchange, after a young person had completed this two-year commitment, the United States government would bear the responsibility for paying for that person's two-year junior college education or the first two years of his or her four-year college tuition.

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Just as John F. Kennedy's Peace Corps found inspiration in the ideas of Sen. Hubert Humphrey, Sen. Fritz Hollings, Congressman Henry Reuss, Sen. William Fullbright, and the Mormons, among others, this "youth corps" idea also borrows from the Peace Corps. Such a "youth corps" also plucks some of the best and brightest gems from Franklin D. Roosevelt's Civil Conservation Corps, America's military draft, and the GI bill. That's because the idea of service is not novel to the American experience. Rather, each new generation asks itself how its citizens might best serve their country.

The times call for legitimate regeneration, not a feel-good tweak, and a piecemeal, voluntary approach simply would not promote the sort of permanent cultural change the financially strapped 21st century increasingly demands. Rather, a mandatory youth corps rich with a variety of service options would benefit every participant and citizen alike, while at the same time helping to instill a permanent "service mind-set" throughout the nation – a gift of shared responsibility, as it were.

Today, global unrest and economic hard times demand that we dust ourselves off and start working again, that we repair our broken transportation system, that we train people to help in our hospitals, that we teach prospective teachers, that we better prepare and educate our students, that we ready our young people so that they might have every opportunity to mature with grace, dignity, and understanding.

Responsibility cuts both ways, and every generation of Americans shares the responsibility of providing its young people with the opportunity to be responsible. Such shared responsibility would help spawn a new breed of citizens who, when they came of legal age, would:

•Have increased real-world experience.

•Be more worldly wise.

•Have knowledge of a skill or trade.

•Better understand how various aspects of the nation work.

•Be more fiscally self-sufficient.

•Have the opportunity to pursue a free junior-college education.

Any such "youth corps" project involving all of America's high school graduates is by nature a mammoth undertaking. But then, so are trillion-dollar financial bailouts. More service-oriented citizens would push the country in a savvy, experienced, community oriented, mature, and responsible direction.

What a good outcome this should be, and what a good time to consider such a newly conceptualized "youth corps."

Dr. William A. Babcock is senior ethics professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.

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