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.


  1. This is a thoughtful, well-written post that clearly articulates a valid point. As Dan Pink, Alfie Kohn, Edward Deci and numerous other thought leaders have written, forcing people to do anything, whether for money or for grades, in no way motivates them to do it.

    I have my students complete a year-long Make a Difference (MAD) project. Many of them choose service. The key to the project’s success is that it only has to make a difference to one person, and that person can be the student completing the project.

    With no threat of a failing grade and constant feedback from me, students do amazing things. They write novels, create new charities, built satellite charity organizations and run them from the school and help in the community.

    The merits of service should be taught, but participation should always be a student’s choice.

    Thanks for the post; I enjoyed it.

  2. ‘Volunteer’ community service requirements for a high school diploma isn’t a bad idea. High school students, being teenagers, need a taste – a real taste, not just some guest speaker or government-funded commercial on TV (“this is your brain on drugs”) – of what their lives can be like if they make bad decisions. It’s also a great way to learn some first hand empathy for the less fortunate, both human and animal.

    Once they’re adults and out of high school, however, you’ll need a judge to force community service on someone…

    • Oh, yes it IS a bad idea. Many of the poorer kids already do some form of service, many in their own family, or through working, which relieves their parents of needing to provide for them. But, the middle-class kids can afford to do the unpaid work, without worrying that it will compromise their earning money.

      That whole Constitutional thingy about “involuntary servitude”? From Wikipedia (OK, I know that they tend to be biased towards Liberal ideas, but they’re not bad on general topics):

      Involuntary servitude is a United States legal and constitutional term for a person laboring against that person’s will to benefit another, under some form of coercion other than the worker’s financial needs. While laboring to benefit another occurs also in the condition of slavery, involuntary servitude does not necessarily connote the complete lack of freedom experienced in chattel slavery; involuntary servitude may also refer to other forms of unfree labor. Involuntary servitude is not dependent upon compensation or its amount.

      The Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution makes involuntary servitude illegal under any U.S. jurisdiction whether at the hands of the U.S. government or in the private sphere, except as punishment for a crime: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

      If mandating work for high school graduation doesn’t count as involuntary servitude, I don’t know what does.

      • Most of the U.S. Constitution has been dead for some time now. Its death began in 1913, was quickened in the 1930’s, and has eroded away entirely in some places since the Cold War began. I think the only amendment out of the first 15 that isn’t openly violated in some way these days is the 3rd…

  3. tim-10-ber says:

    My older son was required to do community service hours for high school and 60 hours of convocation credits across a range of areas. Because of both requirements he was exposed to and did things he might never have done — pull honey suckle bushes in a park made possible by his grandfather (his appreciation of nature has grown), worked on three habitat builds which enabled him to work independently, learn to manage a hammer, nails, ladders, paint, meet new people, etc. plus go to different events on his college campus and either learn new things or engage in conversations with the guest presenter using knowledge he had gained in other ways and walk away from the event feeling he was very informed and well prepared. I think, if done well, community service hours are good for high school students…even if it giving back to the school they attend.

    My younger son also had community service hours in high school. He was able to do his hours in a basketball camp for younger kids and they did a class project that benefited habitat.

    I say go for it…of course, if the school didn’t require it I would have taken the younger one on habitat builds or have him volunteer in community service centers working with younger kids in the summer. I believe the experience is valuable for everyone…

  4. It is a terrible idea.The whole idea of mantadory volunteering is an absolute contradiction in terms and, as stated above, an attempt to indoctrinate kids. I am grateful that we left MD before my kids were impacted. Also, at least at that time and at their schools, anything done with a religious organization of any type was disallowed. Lots of kids had done significant work through their churches or temples, but the schools would not accept the hours. Maybe the schools locally misinterpreted the law, but that’s what kids were told.

  5. Using Mr. Lopez’s logic that making students do something they might not immediately choose to do on their own, then why have any high school requirements at all? Why should we “force” students to take Math? Why should we “force” students to take 4 years of English/Literature? Why should we “force” students to learn a foreign language? I mean, if they don’t WANT to take those courses, how dare we “force” them to do so? Hell… by this logic, we shouldn’t “force” them to go to school at all!

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      We don’t force students to do any of those things. If they want a state granted diploma, they must satisfy state requirements. They can opt to drop out at 16, pursue a GED, attend a community college, or homeschool. There are many path to education and job training for those who seek alternatives.

      It is clearly an over-reach for schools to require community service – or volunteering.


    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Hell… by this logic, we shouldn’t “force” them to go to school at all!

      That depends on who “we” are.

  6. Richard Aubrey says:


    Good for your son. Do you mean to imply that without the school’s requirement he couldn’t have done those things?

  7. Couldn’t they accomplish something similar, but without the coercion, by offering volunteering as an elective credit? Students with an interest could volunteer, those without could take something else. Students could take it during the semester, or during the summer if their schedule didn’t allow it during the regular school year.

  8. Cranberry says:

    It’s not volunteering if it’s required.

    There’s also the question of the time commitment. If you want to look for one factor which can explain the difference between international schools and US schools, I think the amount of time spent studying is a huge factor.

    The time spent on forced unpaid labor could have been put to use studying. There are only so many hours in the day. High school students play sports, have after-school jobs, serious facebook and video game habits…

    Yes, I could argue that requiring hours of unpaid labor will decrease the amount of time students spend unproductively, but we all know that’s not true. Students are much more likely to skimp on the hours spent preparing for class, when time is tight–and we all know it.

    • Most (non-boarding) schools outside of the US do not have the extracurriculars, athletic or otherwise, that we do. Also, I have never heard that foreign universities outside of the US expect or have any real interest in, such extracurriculars. The primary out-of-school expectation there is studying, and in some countries, being tutored. Perhaps I am misinformed on the issue, and I admit that I have never really studied it, but it seems that our non-academic demands on k-12 kids’ time are already much greater than in the rest of the world. Kids wishing to aim at elite colleges need to have serious commitment to extracurriculars by MS, because they won’t be competitive for HS-level, either varsity or out-of-school elite clubs/music etc., without such experience and elite colleges demand significant, deep extracurricular accomplishments. Development of those skills has to start fairly early in ES. What free time kids have should not be further limited. Everyone already knows that much of the volunteering, even that which is not required by the state/school, is just a game; the phrase of art at elite MBA-applicant level is “Saving the world on Saturdays.”

  9. Roger Sweeny says:

    Can you also require schoolkids to eat broccoli?

  10. As the rule stands, I disagree with it. I believe the idea should be contact with the world outside of high school walls. I think it would be more beneficial if there was a work exemption (i.e. if the student has a part-time job in the equivalent amount of hours and provides the same kind of reflection). In my mind, as a high school teacher, I think of the students who have no outside experience because the only thing they know how to do is go home and play video games until the wee hours of the morning.

    What is the purpose of the program? Is it to provide the student with “real-world” contact and experience, or is it to to inspire the feeling of service? I think the second reason will ultimately fail, but if the program is designed with the idea of contact in mind, then it will be more successful.

    If the student is college-bound (or thinks they are, regardless of the facts), then they need community-service hours on their application. Period. And the goal of high school is to have the kids ready to go to college if they WANT to. Getting into college is nothing like what it was when I went even ten years ago. However, it seems as if tis program could use a few exemptions upon proof of other circumstances.

  11. Michael E. Lopez says:

    And the goal of high school is to have the kids ready to go to college if they WANT to.

    That SHOULD be false. Hopefully it is.

  12. Roger Sweeny says:

    The primary goal of many high schools is to get their students into the most selective colleges possible.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      I agree with you, Roger. It is.

      I should also point out, apropos of my earlier comment, that I don’t disagree that the goal of high school used to be almost exclusively college prep. But since that time, we’ve opened up universal high school, which changes matters significantly. It doesn’t make sense to try to prepare everyone for college unless you think everyone’s going to college.

      Which is, of course, a terrible idea.

      • But announcing that the organizational goal is to prepare all kids for college is a great idea.

        If that’s actually the district’s goal and the district pursues policies to try to make that happen, well, great. But if it’s nothing but political eye-wash and a majority of kids don’t graduate or graduate utterly unprepared for college, where’s the down-side?

        The kid’s “graduated” so is no longer attending so who cares how ill-used the kid or the parents feel? They’re yesterday’s news. All the while the superintendent and board members get to make grandiose promises they have either no hope or no intention of keeping.

      • You were right the first time. The goal should not be to get kids to college; it should be to help students become independent learners. Then, they can do anything they want to do, including go to any college.

    • The primary goal is to create follow orders, don’t think outside the box workers that can be paid small wages to pull levers and not ask questions about what’s going on behind closed doors…

  13. Richard Nieporent says:

    You know who is also forced to do community service, children (and adults) who have committed some petty crime or first time offense. They are given the option of doing community service in lieu of jail. If these high school students are “lucky” they can do their community service with such outstanding role models as Linsay Lohan.

  14. The idea of having required “volunteer” time is horrible. As momof4 said, this is an oxymoron. If it is mandatory, it is no longer volunteering.

    But even further, it is mission creep to even think that this is appropriate to have as a requirement for HS graduation. The purpose of HS is to prepare individuals with the knowledge to be a functioning adult either with advanced study at college or prepared for working.

    While it is nice for kids to do volunteer work and there may be intrinsic rewards they gain from giving, volunteering does not directly help with any core educational mission of HS.

  15. Although I can see that there is a conflict of terminology (voluntary vs. mandatory), I can see merit in requiring students to do volunteer work. Without a doubt, it expands the horizons of the young people involved, making them more aware of the real world beyond the four walls of a classroom. At the same time, I do believe that no expenses (transportation or otherwise) should be incurred by these young people and that one has to take a careful look at when, where and for how this voluntary service is to take place.