Meeting with Frances Hesselbein means talking about service. Her touchstone phrase is “to serve is to live.” All the men in her life served in the military. She taught at West Point and led me to my co-teaching for three days last fall.
By contrast, when I grew up, I associated the military with the draft, whose compulsory nature seemed unconstitutional.
My sense of community has changed—I would say matured. I find discipline valuable and lacking in the United States.
A civilian service, maybe mandatory
A year or so ago, Frances mentioned the idea of civilian service, maybe even compulsory civilian service. I hadn’t seriously thought about the idea before.
Many nations have it but not the U.S. Most of my life I would have opposed it, but since she mentioned it, I’ve at least thought about it more seriously. I don’t oppose taxes, public schools, police, or other mandatory government impositions.
I haven’t thought of what a civilian service would mean specifically. Probably a year or two in everyone’s late teens or early twenties when they had to work on publicly valuable projects to develop infrastructure—roads, bridges, computer networks, health care—in military-like teams but without the weapons and fighting. Instead of drilling for battle, they’d drill for vocational and trade work.
It could replace the military responding to disasters with civilians who worked equally efficiently but without the overhead of weapons. Instead of showing up in aircraft carriers, they could show up in vehicles designed to help.
If I only consider what benefits a civilian service could create, the idea has a lot going for it. The nation needs serious infrastructure work. A lot of people have no experience working with their hands, building things. If sea levels keep rising, we’ll have to move cities. Think about that. We’ll have to move cities. A civilian service could help.
A compulsory civilian service, depending on implementation, could bring together disparate populations. The military does that somewhat, but I think enlisted parts have more poor people with fewer options. A civilian service might not stratify by social and economic class.
My high school was a magnet school, but also an inner-city public school that brought the world together. Pick a line that divides people. Central High School had representatives from all sides and we all interacted. I’ve never been in a similar melting pot. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I could see a civilian service bringing people together similarly.
Come to think of it, jury duty gave me similar experiences of meeting people I never would otherwise. This diverse nation would benefit from more such meeting, in my opinion.
People could enter the workforce with experience. I think we did things like it during the Depression.
I’m purposefully not considering downsides or how to implement, not because those considerations aren’t important but just to dream.
A civilian service academy
Say a civilian service took root or the nation, through a democratic process, agreed to start it. A civilian service academy like West Point, Annapolis, or one of the other military academies would help create its leaders.
The idea popped into my head unexpectedly while talking to Frances this afternoon, based on her descriptions of West Point and my experience there. I mentioned it to her. She said such institutions existed. I suggested that universities were designed to educate, not practice. Harvard, etc teach a lot, but their goal is primarily intellectual teaching. I don’t think any American vocational schools compare with our academic colleges. I guess professional schools such as for law, business, medicine, engineering, and so forth do, but they’re for older students.
West Point included activity like drilling, athletics, and at one time art. These practices developed discipline and taught leadership. Colleges and universities offer them as options, but they aren’t integrated into the experience. Military academies require military work. What if the government created a civilian service academy with the stature and leadership training of a military service academy, but teaching civilian vocational leadership?
Imagine an active alumni community able to handle weather emergencies, that could rebuild our disintegrating trains, roads, and subways, and so on.
I think of the nation’s physical rebuilding challenges, social divisions and unrest, and cultural lethargy. I contrast these problems with Frances’ words that have brought her so much success, “to serve is to live,” and wonder if we could solve many problems while improving people’s lives and building community.
The ideas seem crazy at first. I’m not trying to weigh them thoroughly. From a libertarian perspective they may sound horrible. Maybe the ideas are old and I showed more ignorance than thoughtfulness. Frances gets you thinking like this.
I’m only looking at what at first seems helpful. I’ll try to develop the ideas over the years.
Read my weekly newsletter
On initiative, leadership, the environment, and burpees