Citizenship or Slavery?

Service-learning is a new buzzword for sending high school students into the community to do volunteer work. Service-learning isn’t really volunteering, though, when it is required for high school graduation–and there’s the rub. Americans generally applaud community service, but make that service mandatory and sizzling controversy erupts. George Bush promoted the notion of mandatory youth service as a means of reinvigorating responsible citizenship. The hotly debated issue of a national community service draft was finally settled in 1993 with the creation of the voluntary AmeriCorps. Locally, though, requirements for mandatory community service are on the increase, and they’re being met with sturdy opposition.

Community service as an adjunct to classroom education is not new. Elective programs began to draw attention about 10 years ago, and both educators and students are generally pleased with them. Students develop new skills, greater self-esteem, and more enthusiasm for school. Communities benefit as energetic young people help in nursing homes and day care centers, lend a hand in nonprofits, and plant trees and pick up roadside trash. Noting these benefits, some enthusiasts began to make the case for required service.

The National Service-Learning Cooperative Clearinghouse estimates that more than a million high school students did community work through their schools in 1993, reports Suzanne Goldsmith in the liberal political journal The American Prospect (Summer 1995). Some of that is voluntary, but one quarter of America’s public schools now impose a service requirement, according to Educational Research Service findings cited by Eric Felten in a critical article in the conservative newsweekly Insight on the News (Aug. 15, 1994). Washington, D.C., for example, requires 100 hours of service for high school graduation.

Before service-learning entered the schools, community service was an individual undertaking or was organized by scouts, churches, and other groups for their members. Many question the intrusion of education into what should be a private matter. Amitai Etzioni, a noted communitarian and a vocal advocate of volunteerism, argues in Insight on the News that the “public schools have moved beyond their mission by requiring community service.” Politics becomes entangled in the educational process when schools encourage lobbying for specific causes or approve some forms of service and exclude others. (For example, in one community, service to Planned Parenthood was approved but service to an anti-abortion group was not.) As Goldsmith notes, opposition to an educational system perceived as setting a social agenda may ultimately be the most serious threat to service-learning.

There are also legal objections to mandatory service. Three high school students in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, sued the school board on the grounds that the service requirement violated the constitutional prohibition of slavery. The students were represented by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian group that also represented students in similar cases in Mamaroneck, New York, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina. All three cases have failed in the courts. In denying the North Carolina slavery case, U.S. District Judge Frank W. Bullock cited the argument made by the American Alliance for Rights and Responsibilities that service-learning is an educational initiative that prepares students for participation in society.

Whether or not mandatory service is moral or legal, some educators question its merit. In the short run, it diverts diminishing resources from teaching basic skills to covering the costs of administering programs and transporting students to their worksites. When they work after the school day is over, students who live in far-flung rural areas are at a disadvantage, as are those who have after-school jobs or whose parents can’t provide transportation. In the long run, making volunteer work just one more demand imposed on students may create a backlash, prejudicing them against future volunteer work. Critics of education often point out that schools diminish the joy of learning. Now they run the risk of diminishing the joy of community service too.

Writing in The National Civic Review (Summer-Fall 1995), Matthew Moseley describes the enormous resurgence of volunteerism among American youth–a movement that, as witnessed and supported by magazines such as Who Cares, is proving to be a major social force. And Goldsmith, in The American Prospect, holds up as models schools that have made community service an appealing elective course; these programs usually generate enthusiasm and plenty of participation. It all suggests that communities should urge their schools to stimulate young people’s natural urge to be useful by ensuring that service remains a genuine choice.

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