Pro/Con: Should young Americans be required to give back? Yes, mandatory national service could reunite the United States

Diplomat, activist, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visits a Works Progress Administration site in Des Moines, Iowa.

A July 25 “Local View” column in the News Tribune cited the most-worthy True North AmeriCorps, facilitated by the Duluth Area Family YMCA, as a form of "national service” or “community service."

This rekindled for me the longstanding goal of a true national or universal service program.

With our nation divided by so many issues — politics, religion, gender, health care, immigration, and more — how about considering national or universal service as a potentially unifying endeavor? How about requiring all 18- to 25-year-olds, both male and female and youths of both privilege and poverty (and everything in between), to put in two years of service on behalf of their country?

Such service could include construction (not unlike the Works Progress Administration or CCC programs of old), teaching, the Peace Corps, community service, or the military. There may well be other appropriate outlets where young folks can give back and share common goals while learning new skills and adjusting to new, ever-changing circumstances. Young folks would be removed from their "comfort" or "non-comfort" zones. Military-type discipline would be applied, teaching them to depend on each other — all with proper oversight.

This hearkens back to President John F. Kennedy's call: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Entitlement, a malignancy bedeviling our contemporary age, would thusly fall by the wayside; all able-bodied and able-minded young folks would be included and compelled (with perhaps exceptions made for those who lost a parent or sibling in some other form of government service).


Many other nations have established somewhat comparable requirements for their youth. As referenced, the U.S. had its WPA and CCC programs in the 1930s to help combat the Great Depression. Young men were provided room and board and were paid $30 a month, of which $25 was mailed home.

Might not some similar guidelines be a useful tool to help rebuild and unify our divided nation? Can pride be restored via such collaborative endeavors?

The exposure to new skills and the adaptation and adjustment to new circumstances might well indeed be timely, providing our young folks of today — and our nation — with a rebirth of the American Dream.

Tom Wheeler was a longtime Duluth-area businessman, civic leader, and philanthropist. Retired he splits his time between Duluth and Tucson, Ariz., and is a regular contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page.

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Tom Wheeler

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