Peter Levine of CIRCLE has a substantive post raising quite a few good points about service in America, especially as it relates to the Kennedy-Hatch ‘Serve America’ Act (S. 3487), a bill that, if passed, would significantly increase federal support for citizen service programs within the U.S.

My favorite part:

On balance, I think the field of “service” merits more federal support today. Despite the diversity of programs that would be supported, “service” generally advances several important goals.

First, it treats people of all ages as potential public assets, as contributors to the common good. This is philosophically appealing to me because it reflects a basic principle (which we could call Kantian) of respecting other people’s moral agency. It also reflects a psychological theory known as “positive youth development.” This theory proposes that young people, especially, are more likely to avoid pitfalls such as crime, unwanted pregnancy, suicide, and academic failure, if they are given opportunities to contribute their talents to the community. Most of our schools and other institutions basically treat them as bundles of problems or risks and seek to evaluate, track, prevent, and punish their failures. Cumulatively, such treatment sends a debilitating message. Opportunities to contribute can provide a powerful antidote.

This theory may seem romantic, but it is empirically testable and has been demonstrated in numerous studies. For example, a randomized experiment showed that it was possible to cut the teen pregnancy rate by offering young women service opportunities.

The bulk of the research has been focused on teenagers and young adults–hence the term “positive youth development.” But there is no reason to think that the advantages of service to those who serve stop at age 25 or 30. We know that among elderly people, service correlates with mental health.

Emphasis is mine.  This is why I think service is something in which the federal government needs to be involved.

One of my favorite books, Nixonland (by Rick Perlstein), asserts that the 1968 election is the basis for our campaign dialogue today.  Republicans — led by Nixon — found political success in exploiting the cultural divide between “effete” liberal snobs/privileged, rebellious college students and the middle- to lower-class white worker.  Since then, the Republican electoral coalition has perfected its practice of the wedge politics that has divided Americans into the red state/blue state “two Americas” that makes up our current political landscape.  This kind of politics rejects the principle that everyone has something to offer the country.  It’s the “you’re with us or against us” mentality.

A politics based on service — and thus, the common good — embraces the uniqueness of each American.  A federal government that supports efforts to heighten service and civic education is advocating for the molding of a citizenry that is empowered, validated, and understanding of America’s ideals.

Levine also makes a good point toward the end of his article — service is not civic education or citizen engagement on its own.  Service forms a vital portion of citizen engagement, but it needs to be paired with other empowering opportunities for citizens, such as participation in local political decision-making.

For decades now, we — the citizens — have taken a backseat to much of the important decision-making in this country.  We’ve not been asked to sacrifice.  We’ve been told that consumption is patriotic.  We’ve been told to trust the government in making decisions on our behalf.  Now that we’re in the mess we’re in, service and active citizenship are looking better and better.

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