Barack Obama wants to make federal funds contingent on schools and colleges requiring students to perform community service. He proposes 50 hours a year in middle and high school and 100 hours a year in college.
“These are the voices that will tell you — not just what you can’t do — but what you won’t do,” Obama said. “Young Americans won’t serve their country — they’re too selfish, too apathetic or too lazy. This is the soft sell of the status quo. The voice that tells you to settle because settling isn’t that bad.”
Actually, many young people volunteer voluntarily — often through their church, sometimes in political campaigns like Obama’s. Others work after school to help pay the rent, cover their expenses or save for college. In college, many students risk academic failure because they’re spending too much time working and not enough studying.
A Colorado superintendent, Cindy Stevenson, wondered how service would be defined. Who decides what counts?
“The difficulty is, when you start making it a graduation requirement,” she said. “That’s when individual value systems among parents and different groups in the community . . . you can get an awful lot of conflict.”
If schools want service to be “service learning,” they need to devote teacher time to designing programs and following through; it will take class time too. Is this the best use of time and energy? It depends on the subject, but probably not.
In my unmandated volunteering, I’ve run into groups of kids who are putting in their service hours; they go through the motions and make sure someone signs their “hours” sheet. I also work with some terrific teens who volunteer willingly on a team that prepares a meal for the homeless. One girl’s specialty is cutting up donated cakes and pies. Has she learned geometry? Compassion? Teamwork? She had the skills and values from the start.
Matt Yglesias is dubious about mandating service in order to build civic spirit.
It seems worth noting that the best “service” initiatives around, like the Peace Corps and Teach For America, aren’t so much “service” as they are public sector jobs that are simply structured as to operate outside the normal contours of recruitment and employment. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the relevant test should be effectiveness of outcomes (does TFA help kids learn, does the Peace Corps help build the American brand) not whether or not it’s creating an awesome servicey spirit.
The only way to get everyone to serve meaningfully is to draft every 18-year-old into the military or into a civilian job designed to mimic military service. That would build a unified spirit — hatred for the draft — but it would burden the Army or National Guard with unwilling, unfit, short-term soldiers.
Update: Do we need a U.S. Public Service Academy to train young people for government jobs?