When I was in my final year of high school, I knew that I wanted to go to university, but I didn’t think it was a good idea to go straight from one school to the next. I didn’t think I was ready for university and felt a year out would better prepare me, mentally and emotionally, for what lay ahead. While gap years are commonplace in the UK, in Canada, where I’m from, I was somewhat of an exception with only three or four in my graduating class taking them. And whilst I loved my gap years, I’ve always thought it’s unfortunate that they are seen as a middle-class affair. Although, this is hardly surprising, given the typical gap yah involves interrailing, a ski season, and voluntourism (most likely building eco-friendly schools in Africa or teaching elephants to read in Thailand).
If, as a society, there was an expectation for people to take part in a year of some sort of national service after they finish high school, I believe that this would be a significant improvement on the standard gap yah. When I say national service, what comes into most people’s minds is military service, but there is no reason that military service should be the only thing that falls under the idea of national service. National service could include any activity where you serve your nation: you could help out at care home, assist at a school, or serve by helping with the maintenance of national parks. There are lots of ways to serve one’s nation.
At the moment, gap years are often seen as a way for individuals to mature and develop themselves by striking out on their own, becoming more worldly in the process. But you don’t need to travel halfway around the world to develop and mature, you can do it in the community and country in which you were raised by putting yourself in new situations that involve new challenges. For example, helping at a school in Dundee is likely to involve many of the same challenges and lessons as volunteering at a school outside Johannesburg – without the exorbitant operational costs and the problems of “white saviour” mentalities associated with voluntourism. And, as for becoming more ‘worldly’, if you grew up in London and spend a year at a care home in Sunderland, you are spending a year immersed in an unfamiliar environment, even if those differences are less pronounced than if you moved to Thailand for six months.
If there was a cultural norm of a year of community service, it would create networks that would allow more people to take part: there could be networks of billet homes (home away from homes were people reside with a host family), secondary school guidance counsellors could help students find the right place, and NGOs could help find data on what areas need help the most. The more resources that there are available, the more people would be able to take part.
If everyone took part in some sort of national service, it would also foster a stronger community across society. The Greek philosopher Plutarch quoted a case for national military service, writing that when the rich and poor lived in the same camps and engaged in service with the same common good in mind that this would foster friendship and reconciliation among them. The same can be said of any national service. Currently, on volunteering trips abroad, due to the prohibitive cost, anyone involved is only likely to meet others who are in the same financial situation as them. If everyone were engaging in public service projects around the country, people would be much more likely to develop friendships with those from all different walks of life.
A year of national service between secondary school and whatever comes next could be a huge benefit to both those involved and to society as a whole: under-served areas and industries would get an extra pair of hands on deck, reducing the burden for the rest of the staff; people would have a year of development before going on to their post-secondary activities, whether it be a career or further education; and it gives people a chance to experience new parts of their culture with new people. With service as a norm, it would be easier for people to find a way to benefit their country and more people could get involved.
A culture of national service should become a new norm.