Richard Cohen recently had an opinion piece in the Washington Post addressing the undeniable fact that Americans increasingly occupy information “bubbles”–and that we rarely, if ever, intersect with the very different bubbles occupied by others.

He began by describing his long-ago relationship with someone named Charlie. He and Charlie came from very different backgrounds and had very different beliefs; their close friendship was an artifact of the draft–they served together in the Army.

Cohen said he thought about that experience and that friendship when he watched people rescue others from the devastation in Houston.

The storm, the flooding — the utter disaster — gave people a common problem and a common goal. It also reduced them to common socioeconomic status. After a while, people in trouble all look the same — wet, dirty, tired, often dazed. The storm throws them together and reduces them to the essential: people needing help, people looking to help. People. That’s it. People.

The army had done much the same leveling of differences:

We all had the same goal, which was to get through training. We all dressed alike, ate the same food, showered together and, over time, became a single unit. I mostly hated the Army, but I mostly loved those guys.

Today’s volunteer army doesn’t provide the same experience, and Cohen is realist enough to concede that there is little likelihood of reinstating the draft. (As he puts it, a generation of gluten-avoiders is not going to happily share a latrine with strangers.) Draft or no draft, however, America needs a mechanism that requires dissimilar people to interact, to actually get to know each other.

 But maybe some sort of national service would work — something lasting a year or so. Other nations do that — and they’re not the goose-stepping ones, either. Denmark, Sweden, Austria and Norway have versions of compulsory service….

We need a national service that throws us all together, the urban with the rural, the Fox News types with the MSNBC crowd. That way, Americans can get to know Americans and learn — as previous generations did — that we are all Americans. A common plight and a common goal is how Houstonians got to know Houstonians. A different plight and a different goal is how I got to know Charlie.

A couple of years ago, I worked with one of my graduate students on just such a proposal–pie in the sky as it was–a new G.I. Bill focused upon producing engaged and informed citizens through civilian service. As we argued, there are many ways in which a national program might incentivize the acquisition of civic literacy and change the civic culture.

We proposed a voluntary National Public Service program for high school graduates who would be paid minimum wage during a one year tour of duty. At the end of that year, assuming satisfaction of the requirements, the students would receive stipends sufficient to pay tuition, room and board for two years at a public college or trade school. The public service requirement would be satisfied through employment with a government agency or not-for-profit organization (like public schools or Goodwill Industries); in addition, students would be required to attend and pass a civics course to be developed by the U.S. Department of Education in conjunction with the Campaign for the Civic Mission of the Schools, thus linking service with civic knowledge.

We noted that the groundwork for such a program is already in place through existing programs like AmeriCorps that are in high demand, but limited by funding.

What sorts of outcomes might we expect? Since such a program is likely to be most attractive to those struggling to afford higher education, we could expect broader participation from those whose voices are largely missing from today’s civic conversation. A better-educated population should engage in better, more nuanced policy debates, leading (hopefully) to more thoughtful policy choices. Ultimately, we might even see more meaningful and issue-oriented political campaigns, with less of the intemperate rhetoric that characterizes messages crafted to appeal to uninformed voters.

As an added benefit, a program of this sort would also have an enormous and salutary impact on the level of student debt–currently a huge drag on economic growth.

At a minimum, national service should burst some very stubborn bubbles. At best, it would connect participants to the multi-colored, multi-ethnic, multi-everything fabric that is the strength and glory of the real America.


  1. I like the sounds of this except for a civics education course designed by the U.S. Dept. of Ed. Betsy DeVos should have no part in designing or selecting those who would design such a course. It would be better left to the states to design and should include civics in state and local government as well as the federal government.

  2. Just one little ole problem with this proposal. The country would have to come together in the first place to pass the legislation necessary for such an idea to be put into place. I can hear the Republican Party now yelling, scheming, and dreaming up ways to make a profit off the plan at the same time they deride the idea of bringing together a multi-cultural society.

  3. I expect Todd Rokita would be an enthusiastic sponsor of such a bill and could shepherd it through congress to make sure it passes.

  4. This has been proposed for decades and decades for all sorts of reasons but has never gained the traction it sorely deserves. Richard Cohen has hit upon the best reason of them all – national survival. I truly hope that this great idea finally gains that traction and happens. Bravo to Richard Cohen!!!!!!

  5. I believe that two years of public service would be a good requirement for everyone after high school or at age 18, for those who drop out or finish high school before that age. I wouldn’t limit the benefit to college education, but expand it to trade schools, as well.

    Yes, I did say “requirement”. It is just as important for the wealthy to understand the concept of service as it is for the poor and middle class.

  6. Making it a requirement for everyone right after high school graduation is the only way to get the benefits desired. I wish this would have been a requirement when I graduated. I may have chosen an entirely different major
    in college.

  7. Yes. I’ve been a soldier of this concept for years. AmeriCorp is a terrific organization, and yes, underfunded. This national year of service is so needed. Cheers. ??????

  8. What struck me with Mr. Cohen’s observations is the willingness, or misguided goal, to overlook the difficulties attempting to change the adult minds who have spent a few decades becoming “who” they are and their belief system is firmly established. Neighborhood schools used to be melting posts; we developed friendships with many who were very different from ourselves. We learned our home life was not the center of the world it had been; we learned more as we grew older and were allowed to roam further from home. We saw different family structures and lifestyles; we, of course, carried with us either acceptance or prejudice passed along from parents.

    “…America needs a mechanism that requires dissimilar people to interact, to actually get to know each other.” This was the natural order of most neighborhoods through the public school system. Why believe we can change adult minds, which are too often set in stone, to come together to reach a common goal after spending the first two to three decades separating them into matching groups – clones – currently via the Charter schools and voucher student systems? The difference between the public education and private school systems were a matter of choice available to those with the financial ability to opt for a private education, most often a religious choice. Today it is a scrambled system based on racism and bigotry due to and activated primarily by politics.

    “At a minimum, national service should burst some very stubborn bubbles. At best, it would connect participants to the multi-colored, multi-ethnic, multi-everything fabric that is the strength and glory of the real America.”

    A “national service” would first have to first find a way to remove deeply ingrained hatred, racism and bigotry in its many ugly forms. Hitler’s Youth did a very successful job of this because he began with Germany’s children. Consider trying to force change, “bursting bubbles”, on the Trump mindset of the people we watched at his rallies…or what we have seen of neo-Nazi and KKK family rallies. We know it can be done during disasters; is it the government’s job to create an accepting mindset in all Americans? Hitler accomplished it temporarily by tearing Europe apart; I doubt it will work by forcing people together by the draft or a national service system. Will we lose (more) freedoms accorded to us by the Constitution than SCOTUS is currently working to limit?

  9. I have to say that I don’t really like this. First, don’t we already have some education incentives if a person enlists. Why go in the army for one year at minimum wage to get two years at a community college. It looks to me that this is just more segregation based on income. It’s not the one who cannot afford school who needs the community service as much as those who live in a more insular environment. I’m a big fan of Bernie Sander’s proposal that four years of college for everyone in a public college or university. (And isn’t Americorp something that you can apply to after you have completed college). I really think the beauty of the draft (if there is such a thing) is that it supposedly affected everyone and what happened to the troops also affected everyone. It also brought together people of different economic levels. The only worry that I have is that public colleges/universities would ultimately segregate on economic lines. Private educational institutions should be required to include many more students of limited means and should provide a significant number of full scholarships. FAFSA should be burned. College would still not be easy, especially if young people still had to provide their own housing etc. but it would provide that door of opportunity that a great many people could walk through and enrich the nation we live in. I must admit I also do not think that anybody should have to work for the minimum wage unless it is significantly increased. You simply cannot live on it. I also think that students should be allowed to do work study if they would like to (again FAFSA not required) so they can earn money for books and other things they need to make it through. I actually think my college experience would have been much better if I had not had to work all those years but could have spent time hitting the books, which was something I loved doing. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy working, actually I did, but it put a big crunch in the time I had for school and led to many an all-nighter at the typewriter.

  10. I know that reinstating a compulsory military draft won’t happen. Doing away with it was a dumb idea and a byproduct of the war in Vietnam. I did serve during the latter part of the Vietnam era. By “luck of the draw”, my overseas tour was not in Southeast Asia. Military service then did throw people together from a wide array of backgrounds, and we all figured out how to get along, work through differences of opinion, and achieve common goals.

  11. But our five deferment Potus won’t sign anything like that because there is no money to be made in this venture. After looking at our country from abroad, it’s all about the money. Follow the money. America is the land of the free and the land of the all mighty dollar.
    P.S. This Potus is a disgraceful embarrassment!

  12. Although the content and target of this proposal are different, it is much like that of the Whig reformers of the mid19th century. It reflects the same concern that social distance between groups is becoming too great and will lead to social disharmony and worse. Seen then and in this proposal is the need for common experiences for all groups. Our residential patterns, among other things, more or less defeated the common school reform objectives, unfortunately.

  13. YEP! Two years, I think it is a WONDERFUL idea!… Educate them – in trades, in sciences and what evers – and put the folks to use to pay it off with national service for two years! (give them as much free education as the person can handle up to a Masters level – Doctorate should be self driven!… Instead of just putting them through military indoctrination and sending them off to WAR!!! We need informed well adjusted citizens exposed to all the nation has to offer in people and cultures and neighborhoods! We are ALL Americans – why can’t we just ACT THAT WAY? ya know… this is a step toward betterment imho!

  14. JoAnn is right. Public education was the catalyst for exposing all of us to people of different class and ethnicity. I did not include race purposely. When the KKK took over the state in the 1920s, segregation was instituted and rigorously enforced in Indiana as it was in many other, if not all, states. Vouchers and for-profit charters are the latest iteration of segregation, if not by race, then definitely by religion and class.

    National service is an excellent way to engage and educate. Not everyone will learn the same lessons, but they will certainly be given the equal opportunity to do so. And isn’t that what it is supposed to be about?

  15. We all know those who stick their fingers in their ears (so as not to hear the above words) and blow off anything written (like the above) unless any proposal gives them what they think they want. Again this is another separate (from somebody) informational bubble (idea); albeit a good one.
    I’m all for this or a more developed version, but I agree with Joann Green; many adults are hardcore hardheaded and hard to convince. Sadly, that leaves it up to our children, which means for all of us in the present, “oh boy!” However, I would so happily love it if I could be proven wrong about this and see a new movement starting within our Congress and filtering down among the rest of us. Maybe this will start in 2018? I really want to be positive.

  16. One potential benefit is that many 18 year olds are clearly too old to be in high school not yet mature enough to be in college. A transition year or two would make college a much better investment.

    It’s not clear whether any potential US government can be far seeing enough to pull something like this off but certainly the present one isn’t.

  17. First I note that enormous tuition debt Sheila cites is not the only
    drag on economic growth. Let’s not forget the hundreds of billions of
    dollars due to trade deficits and the enormous outlays of hundreds of
    billions annually to the so-called “defense industry,” not to mention
    a slave wage regime for our working class that stifles demand, among
    other negatives. How our economy with Republicans’ promises of yet
    more tax cuts to the rich in addition to such negative outlays can
    survive will be the overriding question for years to come. As to the
    prospects for a draft, forget it. Rich peoples’ kids don’t fight the
    wars; that’s for the unemployed and/or underpaid poor to fight to,
    paridoxically, protect the rich peoples’ property both tangible and
    intangible (see oil, intellectual property, etc.).

    It is noteworthy that Republicans are very generous with their
    appropriations for “defense,” an already bloated budget that surpasses
    the next 22 countries’ budgets combined, but simultaneously poor mouth
    the nation’s health and education budgets. A college education should
    be tuition-free, and we can afford it (as we are anyway with its
    impact on demand) if we pared down some of the defense budget and
    ridded ourselves of some of the redefinitions of ordinary income that
    reduce the tax liability of the superrich. This change in policy, if
    ever taken, would amount not to spending but to investment in our
    people and the future of our country in this world of global
    competition while at the same time reducing deposits to Swiss banks by
    the superrich – so much for trickledown). Social cohesion will again
    flower when we have common goals, but those who are presently
    profiting are intent on keeping the pot boiling in order to continue
    to plunder our treasury while we the distracted are trying to survive
    with their distraction and propaganda and libertarian fianancing.

    America Corps, Peace Corps and any program that provides for
    tradeoffs between government or other social services in exchange for
    education are good ideas, but should be understood to be only interim
    solutions. I, for instance, have been for Obamacare only because I
    thought it a step forward on the road to single payer, a system in use
    around the world by advanced nations at roughly half the cost we pay
    with our privatized system – and with better results. The fundamental
    reality is that we must elect people who truly represent people (as
    Lincoln dreceed at Gettysburg) and who treat rich and poor and all of
    those in between fairly and justly in keeping with our democratic
    institutions. Remember that in November, 2018.

  18. A good idea, I think, as long as it is compulsory for all able bodied citizens to fulfill 2 years of community service. It is important that people with economic means cannot buy deferments.

    Census data for 2016 gives the number of people aged 19 – 25 as over 30,400,000. However, the work they do would offset some of the program cost and schooling.

    My dad grew up on the near eastside, a culturally diverse area, and was not much of a racist, though he graduated from Catholic schools. In fact, when a Director of FHA, he hired Americans of African descent and regularly invited them, as well as others who worked for him, home to dinner. My mother, on the other hand, grew up in a culturally insulated area and it was many years before she could relax around people of other ethnicity. For this reason, I’d love to see such a program.

  19. I would love to see a program built around each regions natural resources. Working to maintain and learning about different regions: The importance of preserving barrier islands and not building on them. Maintaining and rehabilitating wetlands. These types of programs foster stewardship for and connection with nature, which is sorely missing these days.

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