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Involuntary Volunteering

Written by Gwen Feb 22, 2006

Here is an essay I wrote for my English class last semester. It is about “Involuntary Volunteering,” the practice in some high schools (and middle and elementary schools as well, which is actually worse) requiring students to complete a certain amount community service in order to graduate. (Community service graduation requirements, or for the Orwellians out there, comserve gradreqs. Doubleplusungood.) Since this was to be an evaluation essay, all I could really say was that they stunk, but the implication is, they shouldn’t be allowed either. So, the essay:

Students should not have to perform a certain number of hours of community service in order to graduate from public high schools.

This is because a good graduation requirement for a public high school should be constitutional and within the school’s legal scope of power, useful and fitting with the primary purpose of the school, and nondiscriminatory.

As a part of the government, the constitutional limitations on schools are usually recognized by the Supreme Court, whose job it is to interpret the Constitution. It doesn’t take much interpreting, however, to see that community service graduation requirements are unconstitutional and, indeed, unethical. The Thirteenth Amendment prohibits American citizens from being forced to do unpaid labor without due process of law. These students have committed no crime and faced no trial, and yet they have been sentenced to a choice between unpaid labor or a future with no diploma and limited prospects, simply because they refused to be exploited in this manner. We have a word for this “choice”: slavery.

The illegality of community service graduation requirements should be enough to stop school administrators from using them. Yet the attitudes of many public schools regarding legality or the Constitution are represented by Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in her essay “Why Johnny Can’t Tell Right From Wrong:” “[T]he arguments against service… [are] more strained. The president of the Maryland Teachers Association, for example, claimed that it violated the Thirteenth Amendment. What’s really bothering the educators? Probably the fact that they would be required to change their teaching methods”—apparently a “claim” of unconstitutionality holds no water for her, at least.

However, the constitutionality of these requirements is not the only weak point. For instance, requirements should fit in with the purposes of the school. It would be silly, for example, for coaches to work with people to be swift track runners and then base all of the awards at the track meet on an I.Q. test, or for automobiles to be built for convenience and safety and then rate them according to the usefulness of the seat cushions as rose fertilizer. So, if a school’s primary purpose were to train the next generation of litter lifters, food-bank-canned-food shelvers, and soup-kitchen workers, a community service requirement would make sense. But it isn’t and it doesn’t. Arguments that schools should teach (white, middle-class Protestant) values—indeed, that thinking that expecting students and the community to ignore over a century of slavery-free America in order to force students to pick up litter by the roadside would teach those values—only make sense if you don’t look too closely. A school’s primary purpose is to prepare students, through education, to be physically, mentally, and emotionally fit for life. As a government-run, largely compulsory institution, there is no requirement—there cannot be any requirement—for schools to make students morally straight as well as physically strong and mentally awake. If students want to be reverent, clean, cheerful, and all the rest, they can join the Scouts.

Other opponents of community service graduation requirements point out weaknesses in the values argument:

First of all the notion that the school authorities believe is that somehow today’s youth are selfish. The idea you can force people to not be selfish by forcing them to do labor is completely moronic. Imagine pointing a gun at someone and saying “I want you to care about other people’s well-being!”This forced community service is wrong because it is forcing innocent people to do work without pay, and the last time I check[ed] that was unethical. Well you might wonder, “aren’t you forced to do work in classes?” Yes, but that is not providing a service to another. Cleaning up litter, on the other hand, is. Well what about a shop class where you are required to build a house? You’re not required to take the class to graduate, and so it is voluntary. But sticking to the facts, being required to provide services to others, and only a few that are deemed “acceptable” by the school, and then not being paid is wrong. It destroys the true meaning of volunteerism. Selfishness is not an entirely bad thing, and everyone has it. People only overcome it when they are allowed the freedom to grow on their own as individuals, and only then can they care about others. I believe most people do, and in fact many surveys show a majority of teens having done some form of volunteer work before they graduated anyway.

Requiring someone to conform to values that you think that they should have, and to show those values in a way that you think that they should, by requiring them to do work without any pay at all that you think that they should do is wrong. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, said that “An unjust law is a code that a numerical or power majority group compels a minority group to obey but does not make binding on itself. This is difference made legal.” How many school administrators would consent to a law which would require them to do a certain amount of community service in order to keep their jobs?

The academic goals of a school or academy are to educate and socialize. It is in recognition of education as a goal that most requirements are primarily based on grades, and in recognition of the goal of socialization that such abstracts as “participation” and “good citizenship” enter into the grade-making process at all. If our society still accepted slavery—if the freedoms to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness were not the keystones of our republic—perhaps unpaid labor should be a requirement of America’s youth. However, it isn’t, they are, and it shouldn’t.

What else should a public high school require in a public high school requirement? Because education is state-run, non-discrimination is an important facet of every action a school administration takes. Yet equally clear is the pervasiveness of discrimination in community service graduation requirements. Students who are bored after school are likely to turn to voluntary community service just to pass the time—as indeed many do. Students who already have their plate full either are working jobs, doing extracurricular activities, studying, helping out at home by cooking and cleaning and watching younger siblings, or a combination of the above. The former are already doing community service on their own, so community service graduation requirements would have at best no effect on their work, and at worst may have a negative effect from feeling forced. The latter industrious students may be working to make ends meet or to save up for college, or they may be working at home because their parents or guardians may be working full-time. Either one means that economically disadvantaged families are harder hit than others by depriving the students of the time and money their family needs.

Yet many advocates of community service graduation requirements seem to be laboring under the idea that high school students today do not live in worse poverty than previous generations, do not volunteer in higher numbers than ever before, do not have more expectations of themselves, do not have hours of homework daily, jobs, family lives. These supporters unleash their worst insult upon America’s youth—the claim that, all over the country, young people are hanging out. If this is true, young people must be doing it in ever-increasingly clever ways, with legislators (originators of city, county, and state-wide daytime curfews, nighttime curfews, and loitering laws) and businesses (originators of “All people 17 or under must be accompanied by an adult,” “No more than two minors at a time,” and “No minors loitering in the mall after 5 PM” rules) allied against youth. In any case, as long as the “hanging out” does not consist of vandalism, theft, drug abuse, and other illegal activities, is it really so bad that to prevent people from doing it? Didn’t teenagers “back in the good ol’ days” ever hang out themselves? The fact is, many teenagers’ schedules are so full that these requirements require them to sacrifice something that may be vital for their future.

As one person against community service graduation requirements puts it:

Volunteer work? How is it volunteer work if your REQUIRED to do so!? I wonder how many hours of com[m]unity service they do in four years! And don[’]t they realise that high schoolers have jobs, mountains of school work, and other requirements to do? Fourty [sic] hours of work in four years won[’]t break anyone[’]s back, but then add in the other things no one thinks about! And then they are still expected to have friends because if they don[’]t then they are a risk for shooting up the school! Let[’]s require the teachers and anyone who thought this dealy up to do the fourty [sic] hours too! Let[’]s see how they like it.

Students who are struggling with schoolwork are also overtly discouraged from graduating by community service graduation requirements. Why bother working like crazy bringing my grades up, the reasoning might go, or filling my transcript with extracurricular clubs and sports, if I also have to do forty or sixty or a hundred hours of community service on top of all my studying and joining?

Most tragic of all is when the struggles to make ends meet at home and to graduate at school overlap, as they so often do. Being young puts one strike against you (any politician advocating forced community service for adults would be committing political suicide, although drug abuse and violent crime statistics indicate that middle-aged adults may be more in need of “values education” than teenagers), being economically disadvantaged adds another, but add the increased difficult of trying to find time to study when you have to do community service with jobs, chores, and stress at home conspiring against you—let alone to try to find time to sleep—and you may cry foul but you’re still out.

Some supporters of community service graduation requirements claim that, because people aren’t forced to graduate from high school, requirements tied to graduation are completely voluntary. The person in question could simply drop out or go to a different school. However, this suggestion only furthers the discrimination against poorer students in particular, because their options—already limited by their socioeconomic status—would only be limited further by leaving high school. Although many people have left high school and still succeeded later in life, such stories are rare statistically and often do not include people who are forced by unfair graduation requirements to leave. Also, going to a different school is simply not an option for students whose geographic location offers only more schools with similar requirements, those who cannot afford academically the falling behind that often happens when switching schools, and those who cannot afford financially the option of attending a private school. One might as well suggest that forbidding people of a certain race or sexual orientation to graduate is not discriminatory because “they don’t have to graduate from that school.”

There are other problems with community service graduation requirements. Any proposed solution for a problem can only solve a problem if the following are true: first, the problem must exist; second, the problem must be significant and be harmful if left unsolved; third, the solution must actually solve the problem; fourth, the problems caused by the solution must be lesser in magnitude than the problems caused by the original problem.

What problems is involuntary volunteering supposed to solve? The reason most commonly cited by supporters of community service graduation requirements is to encourage volunteering over the long term as well as over the short term by teaching students values of “giving back to the community.” Leaving aside the problem that teaching students that they owe something to society simply for being alive was often the reasons given for extremely authoritarian systems of government, this “problem” really isn’t: the average teenager volunteers more than the average American, and rates of volunteering among teenagers are higher than they have been for fifty years.

Still, trying to impart values of community service, even if it is not within the scope of schools’ legal abilities or obligations, is certainly a nice sentiment. It is true that there is a need for community service, and the more the merrier. The next question, then, is this: Do community service graduation requirements actually cause significantly more teenagers to volunteer over the long term?

The answer, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (run by the Department of Education) and the Board of Labor Statistics: No.

Offering another look at volunteerism is the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 from the U.S. Department of Education’s NCES, which focuses on the volunteer activities of teenagers and young adults. The survey follows the volunteer activity of people who were high school seniors in 1992. Within that group, 46 percent of people volunteered in high school: 38 percent did so freely, with 18 percent required to give of their time and talents. Mirroring the results of the BLS survey, the study shows that volunteering decreased dramatically 2 years and 8 years after graduation.

On the other hand, there is a short-term boost to community service, so even if it doesn’t work over the long term, community service graduation requirements solve more problems than they create, don’t they?

Not necessarily. When four out of five sixteen and seventeen-year-olds have a job at some point before graduation, and 61% of teenagers work during the school year, the financial help to the community is balanced—and tipped—by the financial harm to teenagers trying to fit in school, schoolwork, a job, chores, and required community service, a problem which significantly affects the volunteer rate of teens of lower socioeconomic status. Teenagers who sacrifice their schoolwork or the community service requirements have a harder time graduating, which translates to lower-paying jobs later in life; teenagers who sacrifice job obligations lose money more immediately. Either one means more trouble for the economy—the best way to increase jobs is to increase spending, and the best way to increase spending is to increase spending money. Teenagers with less spending money will spend less at local stores and restaurants, who may suffer the loss of customers by firing employees, who therefore have less money themselves, continuing the cycle. Economically speaking, required community service is harmful.

It is also harmful to the political side of the country. The attitude fostered by schools who ignore the Thirteenth Amendment is a dangerous attitude to pass on to students who are the future of the American republic. Emphasizing the importance of the rights guaranteed in the Constitution in class but requiring involuntary servitude without due process of law of United States citizens also has the unfortunate result of causing distrust of the school. If they lie to us in history, why not in math or science?

The problems created by community service graduation requirements—distrust by the students in America, the Constitution, and their schools and loss of time and money for the students, their families, and the community—are far greater than the positive effects of a temporary lessening in litter by the side of the road.

As discriminatory rules which are both outside public schools’ rights and responsibilities, which fails to solve a problem that doesn’t exist anyway, community service is a poor choice for a public high school graduation requirement.

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