Class and National Service

The Dean Dad posted an interesting article about "national service" programs yesterday. He's against them, for class reasons:

The message that national service programs send strikes me as dangerous. The implication seems to be that rich kids can just jump right into higher ed and start moving up the ladder, but the rest of us have to do our time first. It's a sort of penance for not having wealthy parents. I know our society worships money, but there should be some kind of limits. It implicitly defines higher education as a purely private good, which I reject out of hand. (This isn't just the perspective of a loony liberal, either. If you've ever been to Chamber of Commerce lunches, you know you could start a drinking game based on how many times you hear the phrase "educated workforce.") If we're the slightest bit serious about economic opportunity, or competing in the global economy, or preserving and exploring the cultures of the world, or retraining displaced workers, or giving disaffected high school kids something to shoot for, or - heaven forbid - fostering creativity for its own sake, we shouldn't put up more obstacles to higher ed. We should clear them away. If you really want to do a national service, improve the high schools.

He's talking here about a specific variant of "national service" proposals, in which high school graduates would do some sort of service work for a couple of years before starting college. In exchange for this, they would receive college tuition credits. This has never struck me as a particularly good variant of the "national service" idea, which is itself kind of flawed, but it is one that appeals to a lot of people in politics and higher education.

There are a number of problems with the idea, starting with the fact that it's done at the wrong time. If you want to force students to do "service" in exchange for their education, the time to do it is after they're educated, when they can bring some skills and knowledge to the program. Between high school and college is not the right time-- we already have plenty of people to dig ditches and wash dishes, thanks.

The "service before college" variant does tend to be popular in higher education, though-- I've heard it seriously proposed by at least two colleagues in other departments. Their argument is that high-school graduates these days are just too immature for college, and would be better prepared after a couple of years of seasoning in the "real world."

It's a nice idea, but I think they're fooling themselves with selection bias. It is true that the most responsible and level-headed students I've worked with have been sstudents who spent a couple of years somewhere else before coming to college, but I think that's a selection effect. Most students who go off to work immediately after high school don't come back to college at all. The handful we see are the ones who have the intelligence and maturity needed to recognize that they need to go to college, and who are committed enough to the idea to make the financial sacrifice. It's not terribly surprising to me that they tend to be more mature, on average, than our more typical student population.

It might be that a "national service" program forcing high-school graduates to work before college would have a similar effect, through a sort of Darwinian process-- the flakiest and least college-ready students would drop out of the pipeline during those couple of years, and go do something else that doesn't dirsupt our first-year classes. I doubt it, though, particularly if the "service" program were mandatory for everyone-- the character of our student population wouldn't change much, but more of them would be able to drink legally.

And, of course, as the Dean Dad notes, there are class issues. Even if you didn't allow the children of wealthy parents to "buy out" of the service program, there would still be problems-- upper-class children would have greater access to cushy "service" options run by their class peers, while lower-class children would be more likely to get stuck with unpleasant drudge work.

The whole idea of mandatory service really strikes me as fundamentally misguided, but it has a powerful appeal on both ends of the political spectrum. On the Left, the idea is strongly favored by people who already do a lot of voluntary service. They like what they do, they derive benefits from it, and they think that forcing everybody else to do service will provide the same benefits and enjoyment to society as a whole. On the Right, it tends to fit into the same mental niche as the quasi-feudal image of military service as a good in itself that Matthew Yglesias harps on in John McCain.

The whole thing is really a twisted outgrowth of the "Protestant work ethic" idea that runs through the whole of American culture. Work is good for the soul, and all that. It's why we don't have the same civilized attitude toward vacation time as the rest of the Western world. The country was founded by humorless gits who were too uptight for the British, and we've been paying for it since 1620.

Anyway, I'm not against the idea of providing inducements and enticements for students to do public service in exchange for education. We've benefitted greatly from Yale Law School's loan forgiveness program, which provides finanacial support for graduates who take jobs in the public sector. I think that's about the right way to do it-- provide rewards and remove barriers for people who really want to do public service, and leave the decision up to them.

Forcing students to do mandatory "service" is the wrong way to go. And the Dean Dad has added another reason to the list of reasons why.

More like this

Not long before the Matthew Nisbet post about uncharitable atheists crossed my RSS feeds, I had marked a Fred Clark post about mission trips that has some really good thoughts about the mechanics of charity: But the point of these mission trips is not only to get [a rural school in Haiti] built.…
One of the many ancillary tasks associated with my job that I wish I was better at is the advising of students. More specifically, the advising of students who aren't like I was at that age. What I mean by that is that when I was a student, I didn't need to be convinced of the utility of liberal…
I want to note three recent articles about science education. They may be dots worth connecting to each other, or they may not. I welcome your hypotheses, well grounded or tentative. Via Michael Berube: "Women Gaining on Men in Advanced Fields". It seems like we've heard this kind of result…
Photo source. This article was co-authored with Ms. Julie Dalley, Program Coordinator for the Research Academy for University Learning at Montclair State University. Why pursue a college degree? It is a fair question. People pursue a college degree for many different reasons. It may be the…

The whole idea of mandatory service strikes me as an Orwelllian rejection of our civil rights. But as to class effects, we already have such a program in place for the bottom segment of society- it's called prison.

The country was founded by humorless gits who were too uptight for the British, and we've been paying for it since 1620.

Thanks for bringing a smile to my face on a rough day!

By Julie Stahlhut (not verified) on 27 Mar 2008 #permalink

The idea of adding another 2 or so years of "service" to the existing scientist career path would seem to exacerbate the problems of attracting more students to science. Already, 6 years of Ph.D. plus 3 years postdoc is a long time to go with no job security or employer-matched retirement program or dental insurance, especially when you see your non-scientist college friends accumulate these and other benefits. And I don't think anyone's talking about a concurrent reform of science Ph.D. career paths to go with the service requirements.

There are a number of problems with the idea, starting with the fact that it's done at the wrong time. If you want to force students to do "service" in exchange for their education, the time to do it is after they're educated, when they can bring some skills and knowledge to the program. Between high school and college is not the right time-- we already have plenty of people to dig ditches and wash dishes, thanks.

This gets to a problem I've had with the notion of "service" more generally, which is that there seems to be this underlying assumption that there's something magical about the work that middle-class teenagers can do. On the contrary, so much "service" seems sanctimonious: I've never understood why the clients of, say, a soup kitchen can't also be the ones serving the stuff up; instead they're supposed to offer their gratitude to the suburban teenager getting through his service requirement.

Heinlein's "Starship Troopers" suggested that Service be voluntary. But that, without it, you are not a citizen, and cannot vote. By "service" he meant military OR hospital OR teaching, for instance, but as directed by the government for a fixed term.

Sort of a side issue, but doesn't a large part of the grad school/post-doc experience amount to "academic service"?

And Heinlein's Starship Troopers, or at least the movie version of it, accurately captures the nature of the society which demands such service. It is absolutely at odds with the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution, which both presume that the rights of individuals are inherent, not something that is granted by any outside agency or earned by some service.

"Sort of a side issue, but doesn't a large part of the grad school/post-doc experience amount to "academic service"?"

My biggest issue with this is what counts as service. As Chad mentioned, we don't really need more people washing dishes and digging ditches in this country. I know that in some other countries with national service the main non-military option involves volunteering in a hospital, but does the hospital benefit more from a bunch of unskilled 18 year olds or from having RNs and doctors? And if we count those professions as "service" why not teachers and others?

Someone has proposed the National Service Academy though... And I am not saying that this is a better approach, but it would offer some solutions to the problems mentioned. For instance, this service academy would be free - again, it still has the class issues, but it would train people to go into the public sectors (eliminating almost all jobs that are currently "unskilled") and the class differences would not put students behind in their education.

There is a (volunteer) national service program currently, called AmeriCorps. You volunteer for a year, with a minimal stipend, for a non-profit, either doing direct service (the State and National programs) or indirect, capacity building (VISTA). In return for the year of cheap labor, you get $4725 to use toward further higher education or to pay off federal student loans.

There are a lot of class issues in the VISTA program, because VISTA is directly about poverty alleviation. Most VISTAs are college-educated white females who have every intention of going to graduate school after a year or two off of college. As a VISTA you live on a stipend that is 105% of poverty level so you can "learn what it's like to be poor". However, a VISTA is only going to be poor temporarily, and you can pretty much do anything for a year if you have an end date in sight.