Md. school board sees volunteerism as compulsory


Schoolchildren have very few people to speak up for them.

They have plenty of people willing to do things to them. But that is not quite the same thing.

Take the sweeping action by the State Board of Education this week: By the 1993-1994 school year, every child in public school will have to perform 75 hours of community service before he can graduate from high school.

Programs that were voluntary -- helping the elderly in nursing homes, working with the mentally handicapped, tutoring other kids, etc. -- will now be compulsory.

In other words, the school board is going to try to force our children to become better citizens and human beings.

The board unanimously approved this plan Wednesday. There will be public hearings and another vote in November.

This new requirement will not just be for kids with B averages or better. It will not just be for kids scraping along with C averages. No, every kid must do it. And that means those with D averages and worse. That means kids on the verge of flunking out must do it.

Kids who are having difficulty reading, writing and adding will be ordered to save humanity at the same time.

It used to be when your kid came home with a report card full of C's and D's you could sit him down and say: "The television goes off and the books come out. And I want to see your homework every night before you go to bed!"

In the future, this may not be so easy. Little Janey or Tabatha or Jake or Rasheed will respond: "Can't do it. Gotta get ready to go down to Annapolis and lobby to make the state drinking age 16. Need the credit to graduate."

That's right. Political lobbying is considered community service. (Wait until the General Assembly realizes that this new plan is going to create tens of thousands of young lobbyists with plenty of time on their hands to hang around the State House. And none of these lobbyists is going to buy the legislators dinner, take them to baseball games or slip them bottles of Scotch.)

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, director of the Student Service Alliance, which works with the State Department of Education, is a strong, even passionate, proponent of this new plan.

Once an equally strong and passionate proponent of voluntarism in America (she has written about it extensively and quite well over the last eight years or so), she now thinks volunteering is not enough.

Her office devised many of the volunteer programs now available to students in Maryland, but she has come to despair over how few kids take part in them, which she blames on the teachers and not the kids.

She now believes it is time to make the kids get out and do public service rather than just encourage them to do it.

Will such required service take kids away from the classroom? I asked.

Yes, she said, and that is good. "Kids learn best by doing," she said. "There is too much 'dry' learning, too much lecturing in classrooms today."

She may be right (though education is a field that swings wildly from one fad to another), but let's say your kid cannot read. Shouldn't he spend more time in class learning to read rather than doing public service?

No, says Townsend. "If your kid can't read, get him to tutor another kid in reading," she said. "If you tutor a subject you're weak in, you have to learn the fundamentals. And that's because a kid littler than you is depending on you."

Well, yes, ideally that is all true. And it would make a wonderful made-for-TV movie: Kids who can't read go teach other kids who can't read and everybody learns and goes to college and becomes poets and engineers and teachers and astronauts.

But in the real world, I have a feeling that kids who can't read and who are forced, as opposed to volunteering, to teach others to read may become frustrated and bitter and resentful. And they simply will drop out of school.

Townsend says they will not: "When you teach, you learn a subject 25 times better than when you learn."

But doesn't she feel bad about forcing kids to do this?

"We force kids to do a lot of things," she said. "We force them to learn to read and write and do math. One has to learn the skills of citizenship the same way."

In other words, we will force the kids to do this because we can force the kids to do it. They are not big enough to fight back.

But I think this is social engineering at its most intrusive. Kids today aren't unselfish enough? Heck, let's order them to be unselfish. Yeah, that ought to work.

Last year, Marylanders gave $31,950,171 to the United Way, largely through voluntary payroll deductions. But why not pass a law forcing people to give to charity? We could make the deductions mandatory.

And how much would you like that? Would it make you a better citizen? Or would it make you angry as hell?

In Atlanta, Townsend points out, the kids have had to do compulsory community service for the last six years.

And, I asked, is Atlanta now the envy of the nation? Is it a city of loving, caring kids who have great reading and math scores?

"Not in the least," Townsend said. "But they do compulsory service in the rawest form in Atlanta. They don't require as much preparation and reflection as Maryland will require."

Maryland will require "preparation, action and reflection." Kids will have to prepare by identifying the problems in their community. Then they will act on those problems through their compulsory service. And then they will reflect (through a paper, op-ed piece for a newspaper, photo album, etc.) on what they have done.

And if they don't, they won't graduate.

Personally, I don't think we really have given voluntarism enough of a chance in this state. And I think the state school board has rushed pretty quickly into compulsory public service, the same kind of service to which we sentence Wall Street chiselers, baseball gamblers and Hollywood drug-users.

I believe we should demand more of kids (while being realistic enough to remember that nobody demanded all that very much of us). We should demand that they learn to read, write, add and think. We should demand excellence. We should demand that they be educated to their responsibilities as ethical beings and as citizens of America.

Will educating them also make them caring individuals who want to go out and do good for others? I don't know. I hope so.

But I do know we can't order them to be caring individuals and expect it to work.

Some things still have to come from the heart. And not just from the school board.

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