by Tyler Pare, New Hampshire Bulletin
An uneasiness about the future of the United States grips most Americans. Over 70 percent agree that the nation is headed in the wrong direction. There is a litany of reasons for this unease, but chiefly it can be attributed to the collapse of several traditional pillars that historically bolstered national confidence during turbulent and stable times.
Over the past 50 years, confidence in these pillars has eroded. This has led many Americans to feel isolated from the communities they once found within these pillars. Countless academics have dedicated their careers to studying this erosion of confidence, all of whom have offered different theories as to its origin. An exploration of these origins is a worthwhile endeavor. However, it is more practical to postulate a solution to the lack of community that most Americans are experiencing. A solution that might not be immediately obvious, but deserves serious consideration, is national civil service.
The historical case for civil service
The use of civil service as a society-bolstering mechanism harkens back to the time of America’s worst economic crisis, the Great Depression. During a time of mass unemployment and uncertainty about the future of democracy, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) provided millions of young men with jobs and hope for a better future. Though it was predicated on hard manual labor building national parks and historic monuments, the temporary jobs established by the CCC appealed to millions of young men.
The appeal was that the CCC offered willing laborers free education, some pay, and the opportunity to build transferable, hands-on skills. After nine years, America began to see the direct economic benefit of the CCC as laborers transferred their newly learned skills into the private sector. On a more fundamental level, America benefited from the sense of community laborers developed with their fellow civil servicemen.
The CCC established a ship-of-state mentality where all men were equal under the value of the labor they put into achieving a common goal. This in turn fostered a sense of belonging and exposed laborers to the opinions and challenges of other Americans – which no doubt created moments of spirited debate about politics and society. The historic timing of this community building gathered greater national significance as America became embroiled in World War II.
A renewed approach to civil service
The history of the CCC offers us an example par excellence for creating a sense of national community during uncertain times. However, if we are to emulate the CCC’s example today, we have to tailor it to the needs of the 21st century. The racial, gender, and economic makeup of contemporary America is substantially different from the 1930s. This needs to be taken into consideration to provide equitable opportunities for community building and skill set development.
The practical execution of this new civil service system is not a far-off idealistic fantasy. It could be established by leveraging existing postsecondary institutions and government agencies. Through public-private partnerships, funds could be raised to make a year of civil service akin to the benefits of a degree-relevant internship or apprenticeship. Participants could choose to serve within a government agency that most closely matches their career aspirations. If a participant wanted a career in engineering, he or she could serve with the Army Corps of Engineers or the Department of Transportation. If a participant desired to become an electrician, he or she could serve with the National Park Service bringing historical sites up to modern electrical code so they can function as museums.
This new civil service would incentivize participation by offering Americans the opportunity to develop new skills, earn tuition reimbursement, and the chance to build a resume that stands out when applying for private-sector jobs. Defense contractors already look to hire military veterans with recent service experience because they want employees with specialized skill sets and industry knowledge. The civil service could offer millions of Americans the same post-service job opportunities, but for a variety of industries.
National and individual benefits
The national benefits of this new civil service will be much the same as they were under the CCC. A sense of civic duty and community will undoubtedly form amongst participants of all backgrounds as they share in the completion of a common goal to better their country. Consequently this will help bridge divides between factions within American politics, culture, and society at large.
By no means should the renewal of civil service be considered a panacea for all of America’s problems with division and individual isolation. When considering the benefits and shortcomings of civil service, Americans must keep idealism at bay and thoroughly vet the practical implications and limitations of serving a cause greater than oneself.
A natural and frustrating tension exists between an individual’s interests and contributing to the success of a community. This is why the Preamble begins with the word “We” and acknowledges that an attempt, not a guarantee, will be made at forming “a more perfect union.”
By acknowledging this, the Framers knew that building a sense of community within an incipient democracy was going to be exceedingly difficult, but infinitely beneficial to future national prosperity. If properly incentivized and managed, civil service can provide both individual and community benefits by helping Americans overcome uneasiness about the future of the United States to form a greater sense of community within “We the people’.”
This story was written by Tyler Pare, a New Hampshire educator and contributor to the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.
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