138: A National Civilian Service Academy (transcript)

February 16, 2019 by Dani Mihaleva
in Podcast

Joshua Spodek headshot

Today I’m going to talk about a dramatic proposal I see as a clear winner for the United States and for that matter the world. But let’s start with the United States aspect first. It’s a big idea, it’s a bold idea but everyone benefits from it. Its challenges aren’t if it would work or not but [unintelligible] support in implementation. But once started I see it as sustaining itself as a national jewel.

First some context. I’ve talked about my return from Shanghai a few years ago to a crumbling New Yorrk Airport, creaky trains getting me from the airport back to the city and crumbling train stations. At the airport the ceiling was falling down. They weren’t even fixing it. They just put tape around it and a warning sign saying “Beware! Danger.” Anyone can see the nation has filled the crumbling bridges, crumbling roads, it’s falling apart. Same with my train trip across the country last fall. Amtrak is simply a third-world train system. When you measure delays and hours it’s third world. In first-world train systems, you measure delays in minutes and seconds. As a New Yorker I can see our subway which carries billions of rides annually has fallen to disrepair. On weekends you can’t predict what lines will work or how long a trip will take to plan it. It’s haphazard repairs, scattershot schedules, poorly communicated to riders. First-world systems have built whole city’s worth of systems. They update old systems and don’t let them starve like ours. We act like a few new stations are a big deal. It’s a shame.

From New Orleans after Katrina, Miami’s common floods during high tide, New York after Sandy, California after earthquakes, Puerto Rico, Flint, Michigan, the list goes on. And around the world where we send aircraft carriers after national disasters the climate-based problems are only increasing as the planet warms. This nation lacks readiness to respond to aging infrastructure and climate change. Those problems are new normal. The idea is a civilian service academy. The goal would be to teach the trades, construction, carpentry, electrical, programming, engineering and so on, specifically leadership in those fields, hands-on practical leadership. What we would need to rebuild or move entire cities to fix problems after disasters and the style of the civilian service academy would be in the style of military academies requiring academics, physical training, sports and arts. Its culture would be rigorous like that of the military academies or Ivy League schools. But it would include uniforms, marching, honor, service and military precision but not military, more like engineering precision. Students would have to make beds, work in teams. There would be elite opportunities. There would be leadership through practice.

I want to say a bit about the origin of this idea. Origin number one is our crumbling national infrastructure which I talked about. Origin number two is global warming and other environmental challenges meaning that we have to move major cities away from coastlines as well as to transform fossil fuel industries into renewable industries. Just to scratch the surface of the work we need to do. Origin number three was reading about General Stanley McChrystal’s call for national service here and all of its benefits which I’ll get to in a second. And origin number four came from my visiting West Point and working with them in co-leading leadership workshops there, seeing the honor and leadership that results from military service academies. The me of a while ago would have been skeptical about applying military service academy principles to regular education. And if anyone supports freedom and education I do. But I get that different people respond to different types of education. Having seen the culture and history of West Point I see that that style of learning is right for many people. I think it applies very well to the situation. Effective leadership training requires hands-on practical experience. I might also add the historical value of things like the Peace Corps, Marshall Plan, Teach for America and many comparable institutions.

Many resources on global warming and other environmental problems say, “We have the technology. It’s a matter of will.” Which tells me it’s a matter of leadership. We can do these things to move cities, to change industries to pollute a lot less. Again, it’s a matter of leadership. Frankly, this nation’s institutions are not producing leadership in these areas. I don’t think anyone’s surprised or would be angry for me to say that. I think it’s a statement that most people would agree with. A civilian service academy would produce that leadership. We know how to do it. We do it elsewhere. We just haven’t put it together in this area. And there are clear benefits for doing so. To go into more depth, I want to read an article from Time magazine written by Gen. Stanley McChrystal. I hope he doesn’t mind that I read the entire thing but I’ll put the link to it in the podcast page and I find it inspirational. It begins:

“America needs a restart. It has long devoted its energies to solving its many big problems – unequal opportunity, crumbling infrastructure, lagging education, inadequate training in a changing economy and threats to peace around the world. But it has done so with tired methods. Simply doing more or less of what we’ve done in the past will not fix what the United States faces. Every solution requires more than another budget negotiation or Facebook post. Each also requires trust and consensus. The hard and disappearing work of democracy. Our civic landscape today is quite disturbing. Trust in one another and in key institutions are at historic lows. Our politics have become nastier. It’s harder to get anything done. Meanwhile most of the other indicators of our civic connectedness – volunteering, voting, joining volunteer and civic associations are significantly down from previous years. This is not the America we can be. We are a nation of innovators and problem solvers who sparked revolutions in democratic governments, civil rights, communications, flight, rural electrification and technology. We are a country defined by deals now in need of rescue. America needs a big idea that plays to its strength. It should look to national service. We should get to the business of providing at least one million opportunities each year for young Americans to spend a service year with peers who are different from them by race, ethnicity, income, politics and religious belief. At this scale of one full quarter of an age cohort serving together to solve public problems will build attachment to community and country, understanding among people who might otherwise be skeptical of one another and a new generation of leaders who can get things done. I saw these effects for 34 years in the US Army. We need them in civilian life. Building from the outstanding infrastructure of AmeriCorps, YouthBuild, Peace Corps and other programs. [unintelligible] alliance analysis shows that we could unleash the energy of our young people to tutor and mentor students in low performing schools, support the elderly so they age with dignity, help communities respond to disasters, assist veterans reintegrating into their hometowns and perform 1000 different tasks of value to our country.

The Serve America Act passed by Congress nearly a decade ago already contemplates that we ramp up these opportunities from about 75000 AmeriCorps positions today to 250000. Getting us one quarter of the way toward our goal. Congress needs to follow through on his bipartisan commitment and fund these positions. National Service has already proven its value. In coal country and Kentucky 50 volunteers and service to America help put unemployed coal miners back to work in computer coding and telework jobs and connected more than twenty-five thousand unemployed workers to job training and placement services. We should bring this effective approach to scale across rural America in the Rust Belt. In Detroit one hundred fifty service members in an urban safety core are reducing crime and increasing public safety by engaging residents in boarding up vacant homes, expanding neighborhood watch groups, ensuring students get to school safely and conducting home safety audits to protect residents from violence. Crime has declined in these neighborhoods and save taxpayers millions of dollars. There is no reason to believe this couldn’t be replicated elsewhere. States like Iowa and Virginia are using existing resources across agencies to create new core and address public problems to boost literacy and alleviate child hunger and are hiring national service members across state government because they have built skills and leadership problem solving and working in teams. All states could do this and meet public needs at lower cost.

Sargent Shriver wanted to run the Peace Corps through colleges but the infrastructure did not exist when he founded the agency in 1961. It does now. Many colleges including William and Mary, Tufts, Miami Dade College, Tulane and Everett are creating service here opportunities for the students at home and abroad while connecting service to courses of study offering course credit and embedding a serious commitment to national service in their policies of admission and graduation. More of America’s colleges could make a similar commitment.

Congress can do two powerful things to help. First, it should honor its commitment to provide 250000 national service opportunities each year through the Serve America Act. Second, it could amend a National Defense Reauthorization Act to have civilian service meet the needs of military families and veterans and to enable veterans to perform civilian service to help transition back to civilian life. And third, Congress should pass Senator John McCain’s bill to create a 21st century civilian conservation service corps which he introduced in 2015 to engage young Americans and veterans in restoring national parks and other public lands. Through a serious commitment to bridging our differences and restoring our confidence in solving big challenges together America can reignite the energy needed to make the country what it can be.”

Again, all of what I just said is General Stanley McChrystal’s article in Time magazine. My idea for civilian service economy which I came up independently I proposed to augment his idea for civilian service year to specifically train the leadership among and for these millions of students, young people and veterans. How to make it happen? I’m going to talk at a very high level because this is not the sort of thing with a low-level engineering details of. I believe it would start with faculty and some curriculum for military service academies and our top educational institutions. To this we would add the experience and wisdom of the trades and how those fields learned through apprenticeship and practical experience. I believe it would be trivial to show a return on investment to the nation for the taxes that would pay for this. I see it as a major political win for politicians of all backgrounds. For conservatives this is patriotic. It’s about honor and service. It makes America look great. For liberals it feeds unions. It’s inclusive of diverse population and brings people together from all stripes. It overcomes discrimination of all types. For whatever president makes this happen this creates an enduring legacy that will last for centuries. For the media and tourism this would exist on a beautiful campus. I visited Annapolis, I visited West Point. These places are beautiful. These are national jewels.

For the educational and professional world, this is teaching by example. This is project-based learning. As a professor who attended and teaches at elite institutions, I can’t tell you how refreshing to teach at a service academy it is. At NYU for example, where students and their families pay five figures for their education every class you are guaranteed to have at least a couple of students walk in late. You’re guaranteed to have many students sitting lazily not paying attention that much, taking their education for granted because they can. They know that their diploma will get them a job doing something probably not serving others but high paying. At West Point they sit up straight and at least among the cadets that I spoke to they described gratitude to taxpayers. They described their role as serving others and the nation. They chose to go there and worked hard to get in. So those traditions in that culture is voluntary, it’s not imposed on them. They want it. They thrive in it. A civilian service academy would help relieve the military of non-military duties that nonetheless require training and coordination but not weapons or force. Think of disaster relief following hurricanes like Katrina, earthquakes and so on. Now America sends aircraft carriers to show up what is major overkill for helping civilian population and distracts the military and its resources from defense.

Obviously, this is a big challenge. Starting a civilian service academy is not a small thing to do. Politicians will debate where it should go. There’ll be pork barrel politics, costs will inflate, features will creep, the first few years we’ll see many mistakes, there’ll be scandals, toes will be stepped on, the military won’t like ceding some control but when it happens children will aspire to attend, traditional education will learn from it. The military will see it lets them focus on military things. Men and women in uniform but not the military will solve problems no one could before. The achievements will come from world class leadership leading the millions of service members that General McChrystal proposed. When disaster strikes its graduates will appear in the media as heroes. The parents of those graduates will appear with tears of gratitude as will the benefits of their work. Graduates will start companies and projects. Many will get elected. Other countries will copy this but mostly it will produce national leadership and aspiration in the trades. It will elevate the role of labor. It will create a national active treasure, a jewel that is not just a pretty monument but an educational institution actively teaching all future generations leadership and fields of national value. It will create a way forward with our crumbling infrastructure. It will be a focal point to rally around based on the values and practices General McChrystal talked about. A national civilian service academy. In the face of the national challenges General McChrystal described and in the face of global warming and the other environmental challenges coming our way I submit to you a civilian service academy.

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