Ask not what graduates can do for the nation
Instead, ask how community leaders and the government can help them do it.
It's high school graduation time and the halls are ringing with John F. Kennedy's exhortation to "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."
Public service has been prominent in the presidential campaign narratives, and should be a focus at graduations. But such rhetoric is not quite enough to launch this generation into a lifetime of service.
Just as young Americans have redefined social networking through Facebook, they have changed the basic meaning of public service. It no longer denotes a 30-year career in government, but a kaleidoscope of engagement that covers everything from voting to military service.
Young Americans sort through these new options based on the chance they'll make a difference on a specific cause, not with an innate sense of civic duty. They have set records in volunteering for their country and are highly aware of issues such as Darfur, global warming, and the latest international disaster.
Whether they participate in public service as occasional volunteers or as full-time employees, they want meaningful assignments, the chance to learn new skills, and the opportunity to help people.
Young Americans believe that public service is something they can do anywhere at any time. They seem to feel just as engaged in great causes by wearing cancer bracelets, shopping at Whole Foods, and buying clothes as part of Project Red, as they do in voting, writing letters to Congress, and giving a few dollars to a candidate.
Government jobs have little appeal as a path to service for students about to graduate. And government is its own worst enemy here. Young Americans rightly view the government hiring process as slow and confusing, their pay tied more to time on the job than performance, and the chance to make a difference limited by a persistent lack of resources. They also worry that they cannot make a difference in mind-numbing bureaucracies.
So how should commencement speakers approach their speeches given this?