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November 7, 2007
What would America be like we had a universal service requirement?

If all men and women grew up knowing that two years of their young adulthood would be spent in service of one kind or another -- military, certainly, but also community service of other kinds -- in hospitals, literacy programs, emergency relief organizations, the Peace Corps?

If we never had national leaders, male or female, elected or appointed, in business or in politics or in education or anywhere else, who had not had the experience of having served?

If everyone did it, rich and poor. After high school, after college, any time after the age of 18 and before the age of 26. Most people would elect to do it early and get it behind them, at the age when energy and idealism are at their highest.

If national service carried with it a housing allowance and health insurance, and all federal education benefits were tied to it.

The pool of energy for the communal good would be enormous. In wartime, the terrible burden of repeated deployments because the military is stretched so thin would be eased. There would be personnel to support our emergency preparedness. The crass careerism that has come to characterize most of American education would have some competition in the spiritual landscape of young adults. Some would discover a vocation to service that would last the rest of their lives. We would regain our sense of responsibility -- as it is, we're very aware of our rights and almost completely unaware of even having any obligations to anyone but ourselves: a free lunch. There's no such thing.

These thoughts aren't really mine; they are those of Professor Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, and they appear in his new book, A More Perfect Constitution: 23 Proposals to Revitalize our Constitution and Make America a Fairer Country. But they make so much sense to me. The lonely self-centeredness of our culture, our desperate attempts to fill the vacuum left by our loss of community: these things break my heart almost every day. It is time for a change.
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