Barack Obama's set to deliver a big speech on national service later today. I'm not a huge fan of the "national service" concept, but whereas on many issues the devil is in the details on service I think it tends to be the reverse. Because the underlying idea is bad and illiberal, the people proposing national service schemes tend to avoid proposing specific policies that really match the rhetoric. Consequently, the details tend to be some good-to-harmless policy proposals yoked together with some fuzzy talk. The Obama campaign emailed around the following bullet points:
- Encourage national service to address the great challenges of our time, including combating climate change, extending health care, improving our schools and strengthening America overseas by showing the world the best of our nation.
- Expand AmeriCorps to 250,000 slots and double the size of the Peace Corps.
- Integrate service-learning into our schools and universities to enable students to graduate college with as many as 17 weeks of service experience under their belts.
- Provide new service opportunities for working Americans and retirees.
- Expand service initiatives that engage disadvantaged young people and advance their education.
- Expand the capacity of nonprofits to innovate and expand successful programs across the country.
- Enable more Americans to serve in the armed forces.
That's very vague, but as I say seems harmless enough and we're not really in "Service Guarantees Citizenship" mode:
It seems worth noting that the best "service" initiatives around, like the PeaceCorps and Teach For America, aren't so much "service" as they are public sector jobs that are simply structured as to operate outside the normal contours of recruitment and employment. There's nothing wrong with that, but the relevant test should be effectiveness of outcomes (does TFA help kids learn, does the PeaceCorps help build the American brand) not whether or not it's creating an awesome servicey spirit.