Opinion | To Unite a Divided America, Make People Work for It

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By Jonathan Holloway

Dr. Holloway is the president of Rutgers University, a historian and the author, most recently, of “The Cause of Freedom: A Concise History of African Americans.”

If we Americans listened to one another, perhaps we would recognize how absurd our discourse has become. It is our own fault that political discussions today are hotheaded arguments over whether the hooligans storming the halls of the Capitol were taking a tour or fomenting an insurrection; if we broadened our audiences, perhaps we would see the fallacy of claims that all Republicans are committed to voter suppression and that all Democrats are committed to voter fraud.

It seems like an easy challenge to address, but we lack the incentives to change our behavior. We are all, regardless of where we sit on the political spectrum, caught in a vortex of intoxication. We have fooled ourselves into thinking that our followers on social media are our friends. They aren’t. They are our mirrors, recordings of our own thoughts and images played back to us, by us and for us. We feel good about ourselves, sure, but do we feel good as citizens? Do we feel good as Americans? Are we better off? Is America?

There are many problems in America, but fundamental to so many of them is our unwillingness to learn from one another, to see and respect one another, to become familiar with people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds and who hold different political views. It will take work to repair this problem, but building blocks exist. A good foundation would be a one-year mandatory national service program.

Nearly 90 years ago, in response to the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps, what was then America’s largest organized nationwide civilian service program. About 30 years later, President Lyndon Johnson brought to fruition President John Kennedy’s “domestic Peace Corps” initiative, the Volunteers in Service to America program, known as VISTA. Today, domestic civilian service is dominated by AmeriCorps and nongovernmental programs like Teach for America.

Taken together, these programs have been enormously successful at putting people to work, broadening the reach of basic social services related to education, health and welfare. Most important, they have helped citizens see the crucial role that they can play in strengthening our democracy. Given that we know service programs can be so effective in shoring up the nation in moments of crisis, the time has come for a broader initiative, with higher aspirations and goals. The time has come for compulsory national service for all young people — with no exceptions.

Universal national service would include one year of civilian service or military service for all adults to be completed before they reach the age of 25, with responsibilities met domestically or around the world. It would channel the conscience of the Civilian Conservation Corps and put young people in the wilderness repairing the ravages of environmental destruction. It would draw on the lessons of the Peace Corps and dispatch young Americans to distant lands where they would understand the challenges of poor countries and of people for whom basic health and nutrition are aspirational goals. It would draw on the success of our military programs that in the past created pathways toward financial stability and educational progress for those with limited resources, while also serving as great unifiers among America’s races, religions and social classes.

These are but three examples. A one-year universal national service program could take many other forms, but it is easy to imagine that it could be a vehicle to provide necessary support to underserved urban and rural communities, help eliminate food deserts, contribute to rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, enrich our arts and culture, and bolster our community health clinics, classrooms and preschools.

Furthermore, because service would be mandatory, it would force all of our young people to better know one another, creating the opportunities to learn about and appreciate our differences. Speaking as an educator, I know that we get better answers to complex problems when we assemble teams from a wide range of backgrounds. Once these teams realize that they share a common purpose, their collective differences and diversity in race, gender, expertise, faith, sexual orientation and political orientation start to emerge as a strength. If you look at the state of our civic culture, it is clear that we have a long way to go before we can claim that we are doing the best that we can. The kind of experiential education I am advocating could change a life, could open a mind and could save a democracy.

A sensible system of compulsory national service would build bridges between people and turn them into citizens. It would shore up our fragile communities and strengthen us as individuals and as a nation. Compulsory national service would make us more self-reliant and at the same time more interdependent. It would help us to realize our remarkable individual strengths and would reveal the enormous collective possibilities when we pull together instead of rip apart.

At its core, we need to heed the call for citizenship. We need to take the natural inclination to help out our friends and families and turn it into a willingness to support strangers. We need to inspire people to answer the call to serve because in so doing they will discover ways to have their voices heard and their communities seen and respected.

This is neither a new nor a partisan idea. This call to serve and inspire is written into the preamble of the United States Constitution. When the founders sought to “form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty,” they were talking about establishing an ethos of citizenship and participation.

Compulsory national service is not a panacea, but neither is it a mere placebo. It could be a very real solution to a very real problem that already has wrought havoc on our democracy and that threatens our future as a nation, our viability as a culture and our very worth as human beings. This nation and its democratic principles need our help. We can and must do better.

Jonathan Holloway is the president of Rutgers University, a historian and the author, most recently, of “The Cause of Freedom: A Concise History of African Americans.”

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