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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

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.

These programs, with their anti-liberal communitarian orientation, also divert from — and indeed may subvert — traditional liberal arts learning, which has already been severely eroded and supplanted by sundry “multicultural studies” that further the special interests of various groups and deprecate American individualism. What students need is more liberal education, for it uniquely teaches, in Egger’s words, “the advantages of respecting others’ nature as human beings, of trading with them, and of contributing to the civic institutions on which any free society depends.” (Of course, it is appropriate in several disciplines, such as philosophy and economics, to study about communitarianism — hardly the same as going to college to be indoctrinated in it.)

Community service programs based in educational institutions, moreover, play on the pity that students naturally feel for the poor and underprivileged. The essential methodology of these programs, which have little or no intellectual content, is to appeal to students’ emotions, creating what Egger calls an “altruistic feel-good aura.” Immersing students in this emotional miasma is deeply antithetical to education’s mission, and especially that of higher education, namely, to train the mind and foster logical reasoning and analysis.

Obama’s vision of service is problematic on yet other counts. It is hard to see how the plan could truly be, as now amended, merely “voluntary.” The plan would only add more community service to that already performed in high school, where such service is already virtually a requirement for admission to college and thus hardly voluntary. Nor would community service performed by college students in exchange for a $4,000 tax credit be exactly a voluntary transaction, even if it were, according to the letter of the law, that students could freely choose not to perform service or not to accept financial reward.

And what of the costs to the taxpayer of Obama’s gigantic “voluntarism” program? How much additional federal and perhaps state funding would it take to finance the tax credits for college students as well as to organize and to administer more community service in schools? How many more administrators would “need” to be hired to manage the millions of new service “transactions”?

How heavy-handed would these bureaucrats be? How ideologically driven would management be? What would be its decisions as to what exactly defines an acceptable service project? Would there be, for example, opportunities for pro-life work? Furthermore, would not existing and established charitable organizations gladly recruit students to expand their already prodigious efforts?

Finally, there have been on-the-ground observers of existing service programs in educational settings who maintain that they contribute to a culture of hypocrisy and even cynicism. That is, with the dangling of rewards such as admission to college or $4,000 tax credits, many students view service as a mere means to an end, a nonessential. According to Carlos Ramos-Mrosovsky, who commented on the subject while a senior at Princeton University, “this darker side of student volunteerism … can undermine young people’s respect for and interest in genuine volunteerism. … In their zeal to recruit Samaritans, colleges have attracted a great number of Pharisees.” Worse, Ramos-Mrosovsky documents cases of bad faith and out-and-out fraud on the part of students to game the service system. Examples include plagiarism, creating original projects to demonstrate leadership rather than participating in existing ones understood to be more beneficial to the needy, and taking credit for service actually performed by parents.

Obama should not, in short, institute this grand, “volunteer” community service plan. Charity is, of course, moral, and students as well as others should be encouraged to help those in need, such as by working in soup kitchens and visiting the elderly and sick. But individuals should be allowed to freely choose to engage in such service on their own time and via churches or other organizations of their own choosing.

Let that be the gist of Obama’s public call to community service. What is more, the president-elect himself would perform an immeasurable service by publicly defending and supporting the kind of traditional liberal education that nurtures a work ethic built on individual freedom and responsibility — and charitable works freely rendered.

Dr. Candace de Russy, a nationally recognized writer and lecturer on education and cultural issues, is a regular contributor to National Review Online’s Phi Beta Cons.
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