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Obama’s Corrosive Communitarian ‘Service’ for Students

His proposal undermines individual freedom and eats away at the ethos of truly liberal education.

by
Candace de Russy

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December 4, 2008 - 12:35 am
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The president-elect has backpedaled on his longstanding campaign promise to have government mandate community service by students. Seemingly more innocuously, he now plans to “call on” and “encourage” them to serve by “setting a goal” for all middle school and high school students to perform 50 hours of service a year, and for all college students who perform 100 hours of service to receive a tax credit guaranteeing that the first $4,000 of their college education is entirely free.

Some, such as Michele Catalano writing at PJ Media, seem incredulous that anyone could “frown upon” such an “altruistic,” “sharing,” “caring,” “helping,” “selfless” program. She waxes indignant that some critics have associated it with socialism and Marxism, which hold that society should be dealt with as a collective and that only workers’ labor, not free exchanges of goods and services, should determine our communal life.

In fact, however, Obama’s grand community service design would surely have more than a little ideologically in common with socialism and Marxism. To judge by similar existing programs, such as so-called “service learning” (that incorporates community work, as distinct from career-building student internships, into the college curriculum for course credit), Obama’s plan would share with socialism and Marxism a communitarian, anti-individualistic outlook and social agenda. This philosophy is inimical to that individualism which is rooted in the Judeo-Christian emphasis on the moral primacy of the person, not the group, and which has been the historic cornerstone of American freedom and prosperity. It is completely predictable that Obama’s plan, if implemented nationwide, would greatly infect this nation further with the very communitarian and anti-individualist political ideology that produced such disastrous socialist and Marxist regimes in Europe and elsewhere.

In a discerning analysis of the character and effects of the aforementioned service learning on campuses — an analysis which would likely also hold true for Obama’s community service plan — John B. Egger, a professor of economics at Towson University, warned how such programs, however well intended, are grounded in and tend to propagate a communitarian ethos.

This view of good and evil, he wrote in Academic Questions (login required), “suppresses and denigrates the individual in favor of a group or ‘society’ and views self-interest as a vice.” It is critical of “individualistic attitudes,” advancing instead the idea “that charity is moral, but self-interested behavior that respects others’ rights is something for which one must atone.”

This approach also fundamentally distorts “the moral foundations of a free society” and fosters a “distrust of human freedom — especially free markets.” No accident, Egger notes archly, that the service of a student working as a clerk at Wal-Mart does not count as “community” service.

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