Monday, January 19, 2004

Bowling Together: The Civil Corps

I have been trying to think of viable solutions to the issue of American apathy and complacency regarding the welfare of our society and country. While I do think Henry's idea of transforming the classroom education is a good one, I think something more experiential might have a greater impact. Over New Year's, I talked with Barry about instituting a national Civil Corps for all Americans. This is essentially an extension of the current Americorps and Peace Corps programs, with the difference that this service would become a requirement of high school graduation (or perhaps for any citizen age 18). I propose requiring all American students to serve for one year following their final year of high school. Service would take place both in American communities as well as in relatively stable, safe countries across the globe. Furthermore, I propose that any students who do serve abroad do so in the context of an exchange program. That is, if we send a student to Bolivia, then we should in turn receive a Bolivian student in the United States to take part in the civilian program here.

I believe this program would have a number of important benefits:
1. A civil service requirement would instill a new sense of responsibility to society and to the world in all American citizens, not just those motivated enough to volunteer.
2. Participation in the program would promote involvement in social and political issues.
3. Students would gain valuable manual skills, knowledge, and experience with other cultures. The same can be said of foreign students serving in the U.S.
4. Interactions between other American citizens and those in the Civil Corps would be greately enhanced. Sunstein might view this as an engine for deliberative democracy. With interactions come exchange of ideas, values, and beliefs that are important for generating knowledgeable discussion.
5. American citizens, both in the program and out, would gain greater exposure to foreign cultures. This has the potential to generate empathy and understanding for foreign cultures.
6. Send a message to the world. The United States will not give up on the world. We will not go it alone. We are willing to send our young Americans to serve both our country and yours. These young Americans are not soldiers, they are civilians.

I do know that other countries have such programs. Germany, for instance, requires a year or two service in either the military or civil service before entering college or the equivalent. There are of course, a number of challenges to implementing such a plan. First and foremost, we have to convince Americans that this is worth a year of their children's or grandchildren's lives. We have to convince them that this is a noble and worthy cause that will not only benefit society but also the young adults serving as well. Making service a requirement will be especially difficult, but I believe the effect will be lost if the program is merely optional. Second, such a program would require significant funding, while at the same time diminishing our work force. However, the work of the Civil Corps would go towards improving community infrastructure and living conditions and thus have a very positive economic impact.

To my pleasant surprise, one presidential candidate, Wesley Clark, is proposing a program with some similarities to this. However, Clark's program seems to be more of a civilian reserve that could be called upon in times of need such as forest fires, disease outbreaks, etc. It is also voluntary (I can't blame him) and participants have to make 5-year commitments which are renewable. It is an interesting proposal and I'm not aware of anything similar from the other candidates.

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