In 2011, a RAND report concluded, based on statistical evidence, that “overall concerns about a civil-military gap and possible erosion of the principle of civilian control of the military appear to be overstated.” Of course, most civilians will never experience the specifics of military training, camaraderie, and culture that all members of the armed forces experience, not to mention the feelings of danger and loss that unite many in a theater of war. Yet, the military is not alone in achieving cohesiveness and camaraderie amongst its members. Other types of service-oriented groups are capable of and often do bring people together to create a sense of belonging and mutual understanding. In order to make certain this empathy is shared amongst the entire population, the U.S. population should seriously consider instituting several national service academies.
Today the social issue at play is that most young adults enter the workforce without having spent a significant amount of time in service to others. As a result, a vast majority of the population has neither the experience, nor understanding of what it means to produce a public good as a member of a group. Yet, the very same majority of the population votes for representatives that make decisions involving public goods and services, such as defense and infrastructure. On a more fundamental level, many adolescents do not live in diverse ideological, socioeconomic, and cultural environments. This lack of exposure leads to polarization, creating a perpetual loop of reaffirming opinions and fracturing the general idea of what it means to be an American. One of the often-ignored benefits of military service is the opportunity for its members to interact with other Americans who may not look, believe, or talk like them, yet represent diverse segments of the American populace (though the military has its own diversity challenges as well).
In fact, without addressing the problems of polarization and nationalism today, America cannot be the melting pot that is supposed to make it unique on the global stage. Many organizations have recognized and are addressing this issue, for example giving preference to service-oriented individuals in college admissions, including here at Princeton.
The solution I present is not novel and has been debated before, though not given enough serious attention. Americans should strongly consider establishing national service academies that are diverse and representative of all segments of the American population. Young, school-age Americans would be expected to attend one of multiple national service academies across the nation, where they will work alongside other young Americans in service to their country, whether civilian or military. Imagine six or seven service academies across the nation that everyone who just graduated high school would go to for about three months unless given a waiver of some kind for special circumstances.
The selection process would have to be determined using an algorithm which first analyzed applications where all applicants state their top 10 preferences of types of services and then allocated those applicants in their highest preferences while ensuring a diverse community in each type of service. Applicants would have a wide array of services to sign up for. Military, medical, psychological, social, agricultural, technological, and other sectors would all be available to choose from.
Let’s start with the positives. First, serving in the academies would potentially bring together people from different backgrounds and walks of life and would widen their experiences and expand their horizons. This exposure to “other” Americans will begin to address political issues of polarization, lack of trust, and collective misunderstanding between ideological groups.
Second, the service academies would provide a general collective experience that every young person would be able to relate to and build relationships off of. Many Americans never leave the place they grew up or self-select into communities where everyone behaves or thinks the same way they do. The service academies will potentially force people to get out of their comfort zones and see more of our country and its diverse population.
However, therein lies the most challenging societal issue. Does the government, whether federal or state, have the right to force young Americans to give up a significant and formative block of their time to devote to serving the American society as a whole? Would that amount to involuntary servitude? The answer is that the decision must come from the people and not the government. It is a difficult choice: to either impose a mandate to serve, or to endanger the very existence of the American society as a cohesive melting pot of diverse peoples. Yet, we already have some useful examples of functional compulsory laws, the most relevant being obligatory primary education.
My proposed solution to the fracturing of the American society is complex. More consideration must be given to whether administration will fall to the states or the federal government, as well as to what types of service will be available. Yet, Americans cannot afford to look away and solely focus on the needs of an individual without also considering what is best for the American society as a whole. Generation after generation of our American forbearers have sacrificed too much to protect the ideal of this nation for us to begin to only look out for our own.
We must remind ourselves of President JFK ‘s words that defined his generation and their service, “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”