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Service without a Smile

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Stop the presses! Here’s a news headline that will send shock waves through the nation: Compulsory community service doesn’t work. Imagine that: When students are forced to be compassionate volunteers, they rebel and find ways to game the system. Who’d have believed it?

In a recent article, James Youniss and Miranda Yates are crestfallen that “a good idea is in danger of being subverted.” For six years the Maryland Board of Education has required students to perform 75 hours of community service before they can graduate from its schools. But according to Youniss and Yates, “many are evading the requirement by meeting the letter, but not the spirit, of the law.” And some “students treat service as just another credential for their college applications.” Shocking!

How are they evading their mandatory good deeds? The authors say students look for ways to “get the task over with as quickly and painlessly as possible.” Others want credit for activities such as baby-sitting, taking out the family’s trash, mowing a neighbor’s lawn, or setting up a dance at school. Youniss and Yates report that last year students who had put off doing their service were permitted at the last minute to satisfy the requirement by picking up litter at school or reshelving books at the library. “One 18-year-old student added that he would dig ditches but did not want to do anything involving people,” they write.

This is not what the architects of “mandatory volunteerism” had in mind. (They don’t use that Orwellian term anymore.)

Well, what did they think would come of forcing students to do charity work? Social engineers never get the point. People don’t like to be forced. Individuals are not pieces on a chessboard. If you try to move them, they will resist or evade. Let’s hope that is always the case. I’d be concerned if the students went like sheep to do their service.

Youniss and Yates use typical rhetoric in defending mandatory service: “Effective service programs give students the chance to do meaningful work that produces tangible results, such as feeding the hungry or the homeless, or bringing comfort to the elderly.” But that’s not the issue. Those opportunities exist without the school requirement. Besides, the programs don’t “give” students the chance to help others. They force-feed them. That’s virtuous?

The purpose of the program was summarized by Nancy S. Grasmick, who was the state school superintendent when the program began. She said “To make a contribution to the community and learning from that contribution helps one to become a lifelong learner. I can’t think of a better example of character development than the lesson that what we take from the community we give back to the community.”

Very nice. But what about the effect of state compulsion on the character development of students? Let’s not forget this is a program at compulsory government schools. First the children are forced to attend the state’s mediocre schools. Then they are ordered to serve others if they want to graduate. That sounds like standard government procedure: through force all good things can be achieved.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that mandatory service has the dual intention of marshaling manpower for approved missions and of indoctrinating students into the view that service to others is their primary duty. Students aren’t allowed to start small businesses to fulfill their requirement Why not? Running a small business would make a great impression. Students would learn that under capitalism, you profit by providing fellow human beings with things they need and want. Think of the implications: the marketplace rests on a harmony of interests among all people; one man’s gain is another man’s gain; consent is the only basis for dealing with others; peace and cooperation through the market make us all richer; benevolence flows out of freedom.

Any school that taught those lessons would be darned good. But government schools can’t teach them. The lessons undermine their very reason for existence. Compulsory government schools exist to teach good citizenship through subservience. For those schools to teach the merits of freedom would be to commit suicide.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.