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Breaking the Big Sort: The Merits of a High Participation National Service Program

February 14, 2012, 8:47 AM

Like climate change or poverty, political polarization in the United States may itself be a "wicked" problem, not something we are going to solve or end over the next decade, but rather something we will need to address, manage, and adapt to via a diversity of approaches.

Introducing a national service program for high school graduates may be one such effective approach.  Here's why.

A major enabler of political polarization, as chronicled by journalist Bill Bishop in his book "The Big Sort," is the problem of geographical balkanization.  We have always tended to associate and socialize with people who share our world-views and that tendency has accelerated over the last two decades.  

This is especially the case among the college-educated who are the most attentive to politics and have the best developed mental map for how to consistently interpret new events, elections, and issues through an ideological lens.  The college-educated based on their affluence and geographic mobility have gravitated to neighborhoods and regions of the country where they increasingly live with others who vote and think about politics like they do.  

Single, secular, liberal, and thereby Democratic leaning Americans have clustered in cities and inner suburbs across the country and to a large degree on the East and West coast.  Married, church-attending, conservative and thereby Republican leaning Americans have clustered in outer suburbs or have remained in predominantly rural regions of the country.

This partisan clustering not only makes for non-competitive election districts where primary voters and activists select ever more ideologically faithful members to Congress, it also means that few politically active Americans know, socialize with, or even work with people from the other party and ideology.  

What's missing then is cross-talk, conversations and interactions that build trust, empathy, and understanding for the other side. Instead, our images of the other are dominated by narratives from our like minded media sources, narratives that are too often outrage fueled rants about the other. (Think Keith Olbermann or Glenn Beck.)

Fundamentally changing patterns of residential sorting will be difficult to do. The same with changes to our media system and our passion -- even addiction -- for ideologically congenial media.

But we can invest in forms of civic education that engage young Americans as their political worldviews and habits of mind are being formed and before they are imprinted by their early twenties.

The idea -- floated and advocated for by liberals and conservatives alike though sometimes for different reasons -- is to introduce a system of national civil service for high school graduates.  

The program would send graduates to politically and socially dissimilar communities to engage in AmeriCorps or Teach for America-style community service.  In these regions, graduates would work with others from a mix of political and social backgrounds and live and engage with communities not like theirs.

In return, graduates would be paid a cost-of-living stipend, receive college and junior college tuition credits, participate as a team in health and fitness activities, and complete course work in financial, media, health, and food literacy.  While engaged in the national service program, graduates can also begin to earn college credit through online course work.

The national service program would also build leadership, team building, and technical or trade skills that would prepare graduates for the workplace and enhance their credentials.

What do readers think?  Would you support this type of national service program?  


Breaking the Big Sort: The ...

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