Monday, April 06, 2009

Willingness Is the Key

A few years ago I was chatting with a relative that had retired after working for nearly two decades as a secretary at a major university. She explained that her career at the university had been split almost equally between two departments.

During the first half of her tenure, she worked in the school of education for the department of counseling and special education. During the second half, she worked in the college of fine arts for the theater and media arts department.

My relative had enjoyed both jobs, but said that the contrast between the two departments could not have been starker. The differences she described ran throughout the entire culture of each department. They were embodied in everyone — from the professors to the students to the support staff — and in everything — from the architecture to the furniture.

Most of the people in the special education program seemed to focus their entire lives on others. Even people that had no apparent reason to gain from doing so treated a lowly secretary like my relative with genuine personal concern. Such sentiments were ubiquitous throughout departmental interactions.

The majority of people involved in the performing arts, on the other hand, made it abundantly clear in everything they did that they were the central focus. They exemplified the term, “It’s all about ME.” It wasn’t that people weren’t nice when necessary. It’s just that their self centered focus was emphatically and continuously on display throughout the department’s culture.

A few years ago I saw a report on TV about a famous media star that had spent the day doing the kind of ordinary service project in which many of my neighbors and I often participate. This fellow had dressed a bit nicer than we dress for these kinds of projects, but he had actually gotten in and worked with his hands. At the end of the day, he had a look of exultant joy on his face as he said, “This has been a catharsis for me.”

I almost felt sad for this man, because he had apparently waited until his sixth decade of life to discover the happiness that lies in unselfish service to others. It made me wonder how many others live out their lives so wrapped up in satisfying their own desires that they miss out on much greater personal fulfillment than they will ever derive from selfish pursuits.

Giving selfless service is good for us. It makes us happier. Studies show that it makes us healthier. But I have noticed throughout the years that forcing someone to serve rarely brings such benefits. In many cases it creates resentment rather than joy. Occasionally youth that come to a service project begrudgingly will start to get the spirit of it from those around them and will discover an ennobling sensation overcoming their antipathy. But more often they end up being more of a hindrance than a help.

I think that if more people understood the good things that come to them from serving others, they would go out and serve just to gain those benefits. For that reason, I invite others to serve. But I am not in favor of forcing people to “serve.” The ends do not justify the means, nor will compulsory “service” develop the kind of character traits we hope will accrue through giving willing assistance.

School and university programs are increasingly requiring public service. There has been a lot of talk about the government requiring public service from our young people, or of at least offering other benefits to entice them into rendering such service.

I believe that this is a misguided effort. In some cases it amounts to taxation in disguise. In other cases, it is just quid-pro-quo — a job by another name. At any rate, it is unlikely that it can generate either the kind of joy that comes from unselfish service or the kind of culture of selflessness its promoters hope for.

No amount of compulsory public service would turn the self centered students in the performing arts department into the selfless students in the special education department. Well intentioned attempts to force such a result would produce detrimental unintended consequences.

5 comments:

Democracy Lover said...

I certainly agree that service to others is rewarding not only to the individuals performing the service or benefiting directly from it, but for the community as a whole.

I have no problem with the requirement for community service at the college level. Students who are averse to such a requirement are free to choose a university without a requirement.

As for government-mandated service, I find myself sympathetic to those who would restore the draft but extend it to include other types of employment in infrastructure improvement, human services, etc. Requiring every young person to spend a year or so serving their country is a bit of a burden, but we are all blessed to be citizens of this nation and taking a brief period out of our lives to pay the nation back is not too much to ask.

Reach Upward said...

The draft you propose is nothing more than another form of taxation. I doubt we would be "blessed" overall by this any more than we were blessed by the military draft during the Vietnam war. While many served valiantly back then, there were many that served unwillingly and were so counterproductive as to ruin the many of the positive effects of the willing.

Compulsory "service" in other fields would yield similar results. We'd have programs that would be nothing more than baby-sitting for unwilling young adults and those that are just trying to check a box to fill a requirement they view as superfluous.

I have no problem for private universities that require community service. But I do have a problem for publicly funded universities that do so. For the record, I also have a problem when public universities offer ridiculous courses to fill ridiculous requirements, thereby, cheapening the value of a college degree.

Evidence shows that compulsory service does not produce better citizens unless the broader culture buys into it as part of an overriding goal of survival, as happened in WWII.

Democracy Lover said...

I have to disagree as one of those who reluctantly served during the Vietnam War. The fact that any American male of draft age could be called upon to go to war made that war real to every American, and no doubt led to the massive opposition to the war.

Our current all-volunteer force draws most of its recruits from lower socio-economic groups and it is quite possible for middle-class and upper-class Americans to know no one who is actually fighting our wars. The further violence is removed from our personal experience, the more likely we are to ignore or even approve it.

I don't disagree that the draft is a form of taxation. Like any fair tax, it reminds us that we are part of a larger community and that the blessings and freedoms we enjoy come at a price. There will of course be those who will resent a draft and will do the minimum required of them, if that. As a parent, you know that all young people need to learn that they can't have their way all the time and that if they take on a task, however reluctantly, they have a moral obligation to do their best. From what I have seen of college age young people these days, that's a lesson many need to learn.

Certainly I would agree that a requirement for community service in a public university, like an ROTC requirement, is problematic. If a state has several public universities, then having this requirement at one or two of them might be OK, but not at all.

As for teaching bogus courses designed to make the college look cool to students, I agree that it cheapens the value of the degree. I wouldn't say the same for community service.

Reach Upward said...

I respect your military service. I agree that we would be much less prone to war entanglements if more people were more directly impacted by the human toll such activities exact. That is, more general conscription creates a significant disincentive to supporting war.

But I'm not sure that this would translate into a successful model for placing young people into government servitude. Rather than endearing people to the collective you discuss, I believe it would create a backlash of resentment instead.

It would be impossible to create servitude positions that were not designed by political maneuvering and payoffs. That's how politics works. Those with political clout would lobby for and get programs that benefit them. It's foolish to assume that corporations wouldn't make the most of this. Young people would discover that they would be little more than political pawns.

The attitudes of young people that we today disapprove of would be nothing compared to the generation of cynicism we would create through restriction of liberty and forced servitude.

Democracy Lover said...

I have to agree that forced servitude causes resentment, but it's not as though we don't have it now. Our children graduate college (if they are lucky) with a mountain of debt often several times their likely annual income. That means they are forced to take and keep any job they can get that will enable them to meet the payments. That's forced servitude as well.

Virtually all Americans are unable to afford medical care in the event of a serious illness or accident and unless they remain in servitude to an employer with good health benefits, they will face bankruptcy, loss of their homes and savings. That's forced servitude as well.

Sure there will be politics involved in any compulsory service plan, and there will be young people who resent it. Unfortunately because of the neglect of the last 30 years, we have a wide choice of occupations that could benefit from that service and most young people will be able to find a service opportunity that doesn't feel so onerous.