Forcing youths to 'volunteer' will backfire


"True 'Service' Can't Be Coerced" blared the headline of a recent New York Times editorial. The editors were speaking of Maryland's newest state-mandated graduation requirement -- students entering ninth grade beginning in 1993 will be required to complete 75 hours of community service.

The last time I wrote against forcing youths to volunteer -- an oxymoron if ever there was one -- I was raked over the coals by some well-meaning people in the state education bureaucracy. To be fair, The Sun itself has taken a position editorially in favor of the State Board of Education's action.

By far the most thoughtful response to my objection to forced voluntarism came from Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, director of the Maryland Student Service Alliance for the Maryland State Department of Education.

After our telephone conversation, Ms. Townsend sent me a videotape showing student voluntarism in action in Maryland. The packet included some extraordinary curriculum materials, designed to foster voluntarism in youths. I was quite impressed with the depth and breadth of the materials, all developed by the alliance and some obviously motivated teachers.

And there's the crux of the debate. No one I know is against youths' performing community service. I wish every person, young and old, would volunteer in service to their fellow humans.

In fact, I spend a considerable amount of my professional and personal time helping large and small organizations recruit, nurture, evaluate and recognize their volunteers. It ain't easy. If I had a dollar for every time I made a sarcastic comment about how great it would be if all citizens were required to volunteer, I'd be retired now and volunteering full-time.

Yes, it is true that we are generally not doing a good job inculcating the service ethic in our youth. Far too few volunteer in any meaningful way. But, forcing youths to volunteer is not the answer. It is the most uncreative way I know of to try to develop a culture of caring. It will also backfire for many youths.

The issue for me isn't entirely one of individual rights, although I do believe that there may be room for some interesting legal challenges to this new requirement. The fact is that the majority of youths, once involved with community service, will love it. Many will be exposed to this wonderful opportunity for self-growth for the first time through this new mandate.

Some people with whom I've spoken believe that voluntarism is a value that should be fostered by parents within the family and should not be mandated by the state. Although I agree with that objection in principle, most parents who encourage volunteer efforts in their children will not much mind a few more hours spread over four years.

What bothers me most about forced voluntarism is the tacit admission that our social institutions are failing in fundamental, significant ways. Are the lures of malls, television, compact discs, drugs and premature sexual relationships so great that our social institutions can no longer effectively compete? That would be a depressingly sad commentary if I believed that were true. The fact is, it is not.

Youths will get involved in community service if we have the determination and apply the needed resources to make it an attractive option.

What is needed are creative, exciting, imaginative approaches to getting all people active in community service. Required community service is no more the answer than was required military service.

What is puzzling to me is that Maryland's own Student Service Alliance has developed some fine materials that can be the basis for strong recruitment and retention programs.

In fact, a quote from their own manual says it best: "The best way to attract participants into a service course or club is to run a terrific program."

I agree. Build a good program and youths will come. Voluntarily.

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