At the inception of the American republic, the founders recognized what they saw would be a recurring challenge in the implementation of healthy democracy. How do the omnipresent forces of interest and insularity reconcile with a necessary level of concern for the public good? Engaging in the democratic process with one’s own interest in mind is not only inevitable, it is a vital, welcomed component of the exercise. But when self-interest becomes the sole force guiding a democratic actor, and when decisions are made based on false perceptions and ignorance concerning our fellows and the greater national environment, the process suffers. Politics become more polarizing, politicians become more divisive, and citizens are left with a denuded product and presented with false choices. Through dynamic education, real awareness of our fellow citizens, and increased exposure to cultures and viewpoints that differ from our own, we can temper those forces. National service encompasses all of these values, and in its participation can be found one of the most apparent avenues towards the instilment of empathy and public virtue within a young citizenry.
When diversity is prevalent, critical thinking is provoked and innovation is catalyzed. Years of research from social scientists have shown this to be true, and we can see it in our everyday experiences. Working and living with those who are different from us forces us to open our minds when they may have previously been narrowed and compels us to recognize the needs of others when we may have been apathetic. This exposure is crucial to maximizing the benefits of democracy, and national service programs that bring young Americans from various backgrounds together to work on socially and economically constructive projects is one of the most productive ways to ensure that a future generation of voters have the requisite awareness and level of empathy to become effective democratic citizens.
Veterans of service programs such as AmeriCorps consistently point to the diversity to which they were exposed as one of the most enriching aspects of their service. When one considers that the value these volunteers ultimately provide to communities consistently produces an overwhelmingly positive return on investment, the argument appears strong for an expansion of national service opportunities to be a priority of public policy and a key goal in working towards the objective of strengthening American democracy. As one veteran of the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps noted, “I was exposed to new ideas, perspectives, and became comfortable with having some of my own personal beliefs challenged,” adding that “In an era of polarization and divisiveness, national service provides an opportunity for citizens to find common ground and produce constructive solutions.” Not only will they become more informed, empathetic voters, they will also become more engaged voters. A study conducted by Princeton University revealed that interactional and curricular diversity is positively associated with civic engagement, and that those who are exposed to a high level of diversity are “more likely to perform activities and services in order to improve outcomes for others.”
Offering the opportunity to work with a diverse cohort is not the only way in which national service can increase the capacity for empathy and conscientiousness amongst young citizens. As part of the expansion of service opportunities, a national, cultural exchange could be established, in which members could choose to be sent to a geographic and cultural area that may seem “foreign” to them. A young African-American woman from Philadelphia could be sent to mentor and teach youth at an underachieving school in rural West Virginia. A young white man from rural Arkansas could spend a year in the south side of Chicago working on issues related to affordable housing. A son or daughter of immigrants from Los Angeles could contribute to an economic development project in a Native American tribal community in Montana.
These new experiences would at the very least broaden the perspectives of those who serve as well as those of recipient communities, and in aggregate have the very real potential of fortifying the nation as a whole. At the close of their service year, students who took part in such a program would come together and share their experiences. They would share what they learned about the communities they served, the needs and concerns of those communities, their similarities and differences to their own communities, and share the preconceived notions that they held that were dissolved or reinforced. The resulting product would be a group of young citizens who base their opinions and beliefs on knowledge and experience instead of ignorance and baseless distrust. Imagine if such a program was scaled to include a large proportion of young Americans, and imagine the benefits that would be reaped when this generation and subsequent generations become the majority of voters and the leaders of society.
Disagreement and a diversity of beliefs and interests are integral aspects of what makes a democracy. It is when the beliefs and concepts that direct engagement are overly myopic and based in ignorance instead of knowledge that democracy suffers. It is up to society as a collective to ensure that the public is informed, empathetic, and engaged to the greatest extent possible. As a means to this end, the expansion of national service should be prioritized by both governments and the private sphere. As an increasing number of young Americans become more civically engaged and further aware of our great diversity through service, the democratic process will inevitably come closer to reaching its full potential and will decreasingly tolerate those who would use division and fear to ascend themselves politically, and our society will be afforded the comfort in knowing that those who direct it have the proper level of knowledge and insight required to make decisions that advance the public good.