Education in this country is failing and it's not because we are falling behind China or India in math and science
A colleague of mine recently asserted that there should be a mandatory service requirement for young people in the United States. She said that before the age of 23, all capable young people should perform a mandatory year of service through a program such as Peace Corps, Americorps, City Year, etc., in order to build a more socially conscious, service-oriented, and civically engaged citizenry.
After my typical visceral reaction based on fear of government encroachment, inefficiency, and incompetence, I decided that this was an idea worth thinking about.
The intentions and goals behind the idea of mandatory service are solid. There is a dearth of civic engagement and volunteerism in our society. One study found that in 2007 about 74% of the adult population spent zero time volunteering. While increased volunteering is not a silver bullet to the social problems in our country, it is difficult to ignore this widespread complacency toward serving others.
While the intentions and goals of mandatory service are reasonable enough, I struggle with whether a mandate is the right strategy for building civic engagement. Often, people interested in social and environmental justice latch on to government mandates as a way of changing public behaviors and attitudes. In reality, there are four major social control mechanisms that governments use to affect public behavior:
1) Physical coercion: Police power (imprisonment if fail to abide by law)
2) Negative reinforcement: “Sin taxes” (i.e. SUV, alcohol, and cigarette taxes)
3) Positive reinforcement: Providing tax-breaks (i.e. for married couples, charitable giving)
4) What Joseph Nye calls soft power: Getting people to want what you want
As you may be able to tell from my prior post, I do believe that incentives matter and that both positive and negative reinforcement are, generally speaking, legitimate options. However, service to others is an expression of our common humanity, it’s a recognition of the crap shoot that decides who has and who needs, it is supposed to be selfless and independent of government punishment or tax-breaks. Positively or negatively incentivizing service is somewhat of an internal contradiction. Assuming we all agree that physical coercion is not an option, we are left with the fourth option listed above; getting the American public to civically engage themselves, to want to be actively serving those in need in their communities.
In order to build civic engagement in this fourth way, we need to think differently about how we are developing young people. We consistently obsess over how we are falling behind China in math and science, but why aren’t we also talking about our failure to cultivate an ethic of compassion, empathy, and service in young people? I grew up in a supposedly top-notch public school system in the Western suburbs of Chicago and not once did I have an opportunity to serve people in need through any of my classes. Never did I engage in service-learning nor was I significantly exposed to other peoples’ reality. Human rights, social justice, and an ethic of service are only tacitly (and mostly dispassionately) dealt with through videos and worksheets about the civil rights movement.
Building a society that is centered on “equal dignity and mutual loyalty” depends on a shift in norms, which requires a shift in the way we learn to engage in our world and therefore a deeper incorporation of social action into our education.