Point/ Counterpoint: Should community service be a graduation requirement?

By Dan Mollison and Brian Pierce

Point

Brian Pierce: Service should be privilege, not sacrifice

In the long, cold winter of 1941, only days after a surprise attack on a small chain of Pacific islands launched an entire nation into war, President Franklin Roosevelt sat the American people down and almost asked them to sacrifice for their country. But then he realized “sacrifice” was not the right word.

“The United States does not consider it a sacrifice to do all one can, to give one’s best to our nation,” he said that day. “Rather it is a privilege.”

In contrast, it has become a cliche to point out President Bush’s failings in responding to the Sept. 11 attacks, our generation’s Pearl Harbor, by asking Americans to go shopping.

But the problem, of course, is much bigger than that. Ever since the anti-draft movement during the Vietnam War, there has been a growing and increasingly unjustified mentality that Americans are entitled to live disconnected lives, that nobody owes anybody anything. Our national mantra has become “I don’t have to if I don’t want to.”

Altering this national condition is not just a problem to be solved by good parenting and personal responsibility. Nor is it a problem to be solved by the national government, which presidential candidate John McCain suggests in his proposal to enforce a two-year community service requirement for all young Americans.

But there is a middle ground here, and that is for educational institutions to create a general education requirement for community service.

There are, of course, practical considerations. How are we to ensure that students are engaging in actual community service? Are there enough opportunities for service to go around? What logistical obstacles would have to be overcome?

Those are all good questions, but ones which could easily be solved by some creative thinking and innovation. The more important questions are of a fundamental nature.

The mission of this University is, first and foremost, to ensure the self-improvement of its student body. Education is not just about learning facts, figures and theories. It is not just about pursuing one’s individual field either, which is why general education requirements exist at all in the first place.

The question will arise as to whether community service has value when it is forced. From the perspective of those benefiting, the poor, the underprivileged and the uneducated, it would hardly matter. Somebody helping them get through the day is somebody helping them get through the day.

For those doing the community service, it’s a different question. Will many students walk away from such a requirement feeling as though they’ve wasted their time? Certainly. But will some students walk away having dramatically benefited? I would think so, and I would argue that the educational value therein outweighs the discontent of those who view the requirement as a meaningless chore.

Ultimately, such a requirement would have value to all those who learn from their experience that service to others is not a sacrifice, but rather it is a privilege. The more opportunities we have to teach that lesson to young Americans, the better.

Counterpoint

Dan Mollison: Don’t tell us what service ‘doesn’t count’

Community service should not be made a requirement for graduation because to do so would require the University to praise some forms of service while devaluing others.

By making judgments about which methods of giving back can “count” for service credit, the University would hinder those who want to help others in ways that don’t fit completely with their subjective stance.

I’m a big fan of service, and I have a long history of it at this University. I have gained tremendously from helping others and I would gladly recommend it to anyone. But to force others to do what I have chosen will only disillusion them and set me up for frustration.

There are a few popular ways of giving back that our society pretty much unanimously celebrates. You don’t hear too many people arguing that volunteering at a soup kitchen or building a house for Habitat for Humanity is a waste of your time.

But one of the benefits behind service is that there are as many ways to serve our communities as there are people wanting to give back. This means that for physically uncoordinated slobs like myself who break into a cold sweat when asked to perform manual labor, we don’t have to serve others in ways that make us unhappy, and it would be absurd to ask us to.

Giving back doesn’t have to be a chore. In fact, it can be an exciting and invigorating experience when you do it in a way that matches your abilities. But under a blanket service policy, would the University be able to honor the countless unique ways in which students will want to give back?

For example, we live in an increasingly hectic world in which many people find it difficult to settle down and relax. I would argue that to give another human being a reason to stop for a moment and smile would do them a great service.

So if I decided to put on a stand-up comedy show to serve my fellow stressed-out students, would the University recognize my effort by rewarding me with service hours? If not, what message does that send to me regarding my choice of how to serve others?

We all need help from time to time no matter who we are, and to offer help to someone at the moment they need it is good service regardless of whether the University recognizes it.

If a friend of mine tells me that she has been raped and that she wants to sit and talk with me about it, I don’t need the University to tell me whether this is considered a good deed, and frankly, for them to tell me that this “doesn’t count” as service would be insulting and short-sighted.

If the University considers mandating community service as a graduation requirement, I challenge them to develop a plan that will honor the unique abilities of students and allow them to take creative control of their service. If the University fails to do this, they will have taken the fun out of helping others and simply created another hoop for all of us to jump through.