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.