Hello from 8,000 feet. I'm in Aspen, where the conversation, thankfully, is much thicker than the air. I'm here for the inaugural 21st Century National Service Summit, sponsored by the Franklin Project, a new venture of the Aspen Institute. For two days, speakers will be discussing all the ways in which we can scale the idea of giving back into a robust program of national service. The goal is to make universal national service a new American rite of passage by creating one million national service positions for those aged 18 to 28.
Yes, it's a big idea, but so are our challenges.
White House Domestic Policy Council under President George W. Bush. Last year he wrote "Heart of the Nation: Volunteering and America's Civic Spirit," and if you're going to read one book on national service, please read this.
It captures Bridge's (yes, that's his appropriate nickname) passion and commitment to making service part of our culture and daily practice through transcending ideologies and administrations.
Since the 1960s, we have seen a steep decline of the civic spirit and feeling of commonality that were roused again on 9/11. Along with them, as Bridgeland puts it in his book, we began to lose some of "the connective tissue that ensures our country remains a land of opportunity for all."
But then came the incredible outpouring after all that followed 9/11 -- a yearning not just to rebuild what had physically been destroyed, but to rebuild a spirit of community and service that had been eroding for decades. And so Bridgeland set about creating USA Freedom Corps, which aimed to bring about a dramatic cultural shift that would lead to every American committing at least two years to service. The plan got an enthusiastic response across parties -- but, as you may have noticed, we are still a long way from it becoming reality.
There is, however, a pervasive feeling among all those at the summit that this is an idea whose time has finally come. It is, of course, a very old idea, connected to the very "pursuit of happiness" in our Declaration of Independence.
The Founders, writes Bridgeland, "understood that such sacrifices and work were necessary to bind the country together, as well as unleash a market of talent and compassion to address social needs and keep society functioning." So it was the act of giving back that literally helped build and unite this huge new experiment of a country of disparate parts and races and languages. And it's the diminution of that spirit that's behind the feeling so many have that the country is coming apart.
As Bridgeland notes, virtually every president has recognized the importance of this "connective tissue" and made an effort to reinforce it in one way or another. FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps, JFK launched the Peace Corps, and Bill Clinton AmeriCorps.
President Obama promised during his 2008 campaign that the call to service "will not be a call issued in one speech or one program -- this will be a central cause of my presidency."
But has it really been a "central cause"? In April 2009, the president signed the Edward Kennedy Serve America Act, designed to expand AmeriCorps. But in fact the program was on track to fall far short of its goal of reaching 170,000 members by 2013. And this is not because of a lack of people to serve -- in 2010 and 2011, one million applicants to AmeriCorps were turned away.
Clearly, there's a hunger out there to serve. This is especially true of the millennial generation. And it's not just because of their 11.6 percent unemployment rate, though a robust national service program would certainly help with that problem, too.
"Our generation wants to push and dream for something big," says Matthew Segal, co-founder of Our Time, "and few policies make more sense than allowing idealistic young Americans to serve their country via nursing, teaching, disaster relief, park restoration and infrastructure repair."
What the Founders didn't know is that 200 years later science would confirm their idea of the connection between happiness and giving back.
There are dozens of such studies, but one that I found particularly compelling was based on the idea of time famine. That's the term researchers have given to the harried feeling that there's never enough time to accomplish what we want. A recent study by researchers at Yale and Harvard business schools showed that when people give away their time to others, they actually felt more "time affluent" than those who had simply spent time on themselves.
Institutionalizing our desire to give back in the form of national service works on many levels, ranging from our personal sense of happiness and well-being to our collective sense of common purpose and national spirit to practical solutions to many of our current challenges. Think of it as the ultimate shovel-ready infrastructure project -- one that can literally rebuild our country from the inside out.
It's time to finally make this big idea truly a central cause of our time.
(Arianna Huffington is president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post Media Group. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)