Mandatory volunteerism

I know I’ve banged this particular drum before, but it’s always good to remind yourself of the absurd and insidious, lest it draw you in.  High school seniors in Maryland right now are busy rushing around in that typical year end frenzy to make up credits, pass exams, and… get their community service hours squared away.  Maryland is the only state with a statewide “service learning” requirement.

Twenty years after Maryland became the first state to require student service for a diploma, the senior scramble is a rite of spring. In Montgomery, 25 percent of seniors still had hours to turn in this week. In Prince George’s County, 36 percent were not yet done.

Spring break is crunch time.

“Hopefully they’re going to find something meaningful to do,” said Pam Meador, coordinator of the program for Montgomery schools.

Because as we all know, working to make your life and the life of those you love better, to make yourself a content and happy member of society… that’s not meaningful.  But is this really the best way to go about it?

“All of us want kids to intrinsically want to give back,” said Peter Noonan, an assistant Fairfax superintendent.

But forced service can backfire, he said. “My experience with kids is that when they are forced to do things, they typically don’t want to do it again,” Noonan said.

You don’t say?  Well at least we’re clear about the purpose: to change what it is kids want to do, intrinsically.  It’s absolutely straightforward values manipulation — which is usually called indoctrination.  I’ve previously argued, on many occasions, that unpaid internships are really unfair to kids from poor families who can’t afford to spend the summer working for free.  (I wasn’t arguing for their legal abolition, merely pointing out their moral perniciousness.  I’m a free marketeer at the end of the day.)   We shouldn’t be surprised that kids with more home support are better able to deal with these requirements as well:

Some students have advantages. Their parents might drive them around to activities starting in middle school. They might attend community-service summer camps, which can cost $350 a week. They might accumulate hours for, say, a bar mitzvah or a church confirmation and use that to meet school requirements.

I’m not anti-community service.  Have people come in to schools and preach about the joys of community service if you like.  Maybe they’ll inspire someone.  Post opportunities at school on a big colorful board.  Maybe the curious will become true believers.

Heck, if you’re going to have mandatory community service, have it be school improvement.  Plant and tend gardens at school (decorative, not productive).  Clean buildings and floors.  Do tech work for a play.  Work as the water boy/towel washer for a sports team.  Work in the library.  Help with minor construction projects.  Sort files.  Straighten up the music library.  Polish the band’s instruments.

At least then the students will be engaging in public service that obviously benefits them, and they’ll be able to see daily the results of their labor.

Of course, the classified employee’s labor union would object to a lot of these.