What Does it Mean to "Serve America?"

First published in March 2009
Original Post

I was talking to a friend about wanting to Teach for America, and spend 2 years teaching students in low-income schools. He asked me why I wanted to do this, and I replied that I wanted to “serve America”.

He turned around and said - “What do you mean when you say serve America? You could serve America by working at McDonalds!” To respond to that, I tried to explain to him why strengthening the education of America’s youth is one of the most important investments we can make as a nation.

But really, what does it mean to “Serve America”? No one would bat an eye if I said I wanted to serve America by joining the Marines, like one of my other friend is. And yet, what is being in the military but training to efficiently shoot and kill other human beings. Yes, soliders sacrifice and put themselves at risk under order to strengthen American military power, which arguably protects us from foreign threats. They serve a duty - which is one definition of service.

But what about another, equally relevant defintion of service as contribution, the provision of help and support? Education is the great equalizer as Nelson Mandela once said. Teaching, as the provision of this great equalizer, is an incredibly undervalued profession. Most people can remember at least one great teacher and the positive influence that he/she had on them. But more than the personal connection, our nation is only as strong as it’s people. And when its people are not well-educated, when only 70% of Americans graduate high school, then productivity falls and the nation is weaker for it.

It’s really time we start re-thinking what we mean when we say we want to “serve America”.