Magazine article The American Prospect

Doing Disservice: The Benefits and Limits of Volunteerism

Magazine article The American Prospect

Doing Disservice: The Benefits and Limits of Volunteerism

Article excerpt

NO MATTER WHAT WE DO, THOSE OF US IN OUR 20S can't seem to measure up to the Greatest Generation. That bygone nation of joiners, providers and world-beaters, in the standard story, puts to shame today's sad assemblage of narcissists and whiners. Gone are the days when the United States, stung by a Japanese sneak attack, rose up to shrug off the Great Depression and cohere into a fighting force of Riveting Rosies and Private Ryans. Political scientist Robert Putnam called our grandparents "the long civic generation."

Of course, the September 11 attacks did arouse a general sense of solidarity and national duty. According to the Progressive Policy Institute, there were, for example, three times as many volunteers for the national service program AmeriCorps as available slots. And despite the conventional wisdom that America's young are less civically engaged than their parents and grandparents, the reality is that young America is awash in community service. High-school and college community-service activities have never been more extensive. Many would build on this trend and dramatically expand existing service opportunities; some would even make a stint doing national service mandatory.

It's a venerable idea. For its supporters, national service does triple duty, shaping productive, selfless citizens and filling unmet social needs while creating a shared sense of national identity. As William James bracingly put it in a 1910 essay, "To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clothes washing, and window-washing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas."

President Bush himself has caught the national serve ice bug. In his 2002 State of the Union address, he proposed expanding AmeriCorps by 50 percent, adding nearly $300 million to national service spending and creating spots for 2 million Americans in the country's national service programs by some unspecified date. Characteristically, there has been no follow up. In fact, the House of Representatives voted down an emergency $100 million infusion for cash-strapped AmeriCorps. As the memoirist-turned-service-advocate Dave Eggers wrote in a heartbroken New York Times op-ed, "Congress and the White House have turned their backs on these volunteers."

But the zeal of national service proponents is undimmed. The war on terrorism and its massive security needs, they argue, demand manpower of the sort that only a domestic army of community servants can supply. And the sense of threat has added urgency to discussions of national identity and solidarity, both issues that national service promises to address. The terrorist attacks only brought into relief a trend that has been accelerating for several years: In a growing number of states and school districts, community service is a requirement for high-school graduation, and "service learning" is the pedagogy of the day.

AS A VETERAN OF CITY YEAR--THE COMMUNITY-SERVICE organization upon which then-President Bill Clinton based AmeriCorps--and one who counts my year of service a formative and productive one, I'm not sure that this epidemic of volunteerism is entirely a welcome trend. For starters, compulsory volunteering is a contradiction in terms. Also, systemic government solutions rather than piecemeal acts of goodwill better address many of the problems that volunteers tackle. If hospitals and libraries increasingly rely on volunteers, it's because reduced federal appropriations are starving institutions that depend on public funding. In this context, well-intentioned young people who fill the gap are enablers of the attack on public services.

Moreover, much of what's done by volunteers has a tacit politics that volunteerism may inadvertently conceal. …

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