Why So Cynical on National Service?


"Altruistic government programs like national service are too often feel-good programs. They rarely work," said a jaded Washington staffer in a tone that bordered on patronizing. I nodded politely as a 19-year-old novice should in response to a seasoned politico's wisdom.

I have been avidly following the developing national-service debate. I applauded President Clinton's speeches advocating "a revival of America's commitment to community." Here, I thought, was a chance for our generation to demonstrate that its attention span could be held by something more profound than MTV or Tetris. Here was a program that considered our skills as productive resources rather than as markets for an endless stream of gadgets.

My initial optimism began to deteriorate as countless critics deconstructed national service into Swiss cheese. It was happening again. My would-be mentor argued that a national service program would be too expensive.

"When we are having such difficulty cutting the deficit, the last thing we need is a huge expensive new program. Only a certain segment of society," he continued, "needs national service -- youth from families whose incomes are below a certain level." And then he concluded decisively, "National service smells like all other attempts at idealistic government intervention. It will fail."

These criticisms have force. Faced with them, I felt the distinct temptation to to forget about helping anyone but myself -- to withdraw into cynicism and materialism. But nagging questions still perplexed me. What justified this Senate staffer's contempt of my youthful idealism? Why were he and all the other enlightened ones determined to doom any national-service initiative to governmental gridlock?

National service, as I understand it, is a program to re-instill an ethic of citizenship in our entire generation. The critics are products of older generations, especially our parents' generation, the baby boomers. Although history, as Thucydides reminds us, reveals what past patterns are applicable to the future, our generation need not cede the national-service debate to our elders. Even our elders who have been friendly to national service, from Peace Corps veterans to experienced community activists, have little more regard than the cynical Senate staffer for the views of young people -- a funny thing when you remember that we are the constituents of any potential national-service program.

Our generation has not yet seen its heroes mowed down and desanctified. After the deaths of Martin Luther King and the Kennedys, the tragedy of Vietnam, the betrayal of Watergate, hippies found cynicism and became yuppies. But jaded elders should not deny us our idealism. We want something to believe in. It is at your peril -- you, our elders -- that you turn away us, our nation's young people.

Potentially more devastating than the budget deficit is our social deficit. The neglected agenda of race and poverty, of community and children, of leadership and integrity threatens our country's future. If national service is too expensive, how expensive is leaving us out on the streets poorly educated, poorly trained and largely apathetic? Far cheaper to finance national service programs than to build and maintain more prisons. As in medicine, prevention is less costly than treating the symptoms of generational abuse.

You must give us, the future generations, the skills, the resources and the desire to combat our society's systemic problems as well as our budget deficit. In fact, it is in your best interest to prevent us from continuing in the self-centered, couch-potato mentalities that the media ascribes to our generation. The nation is graying and it is we, the Generation X, who will nurse the baby boomers, yuppies and post-hippies into old age.

We young people are yearning to accept and fulfill our societal responsibilities. Already, our idealism has yielded fruit in such youth-conceived and youth-led programs as City Year and Teach for America, spawning social entrepreneurs to address critical unmet needs. In Washington, 15 young people from Public Allies serve at non-profit organizations and agencies, while about 100 young people from neighborhoods such as Anacostia, Adams-Morgan, and Bethesda come together as members of D.C. Service Corps to teach children, paint playgrounds and provide comfort to the elderly.

We young people cannot change the world alone. Government, the private sector, all ages, races and religions must match our initiative. Young people have much to learn from many experienced veterans, but the price of our open-mindedness is your support and appreciation. Programs like Pennserve and Volunteer Maryland contain the potential to ripple through our entire generation.

These thoughts raced through my head as I listened to the pedantic Senate staffer, but I only showed a timid nod of the head. National Service can work both ways. Correctly conceived, properly funded, filled with a diversity of participants, it can empower young people, serving as a Peace Corps for our generation. Or, as all you former hippies know . . . it is not a giant leap from submissive nodding to disgruntled cynicism.

Joshua Civin, a sophomore at Yale University, lives in Baltimore and is a member of Young People for National Service.

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