….Ask what your government can make you do for your country

Barack Obama wants to put the nation’s youth to work in the service of their communities. Recently, he made the case for using federal power to this end:

Just as we teach math and writing, arts and athletics, we need to teach young Americans to take citizenship seriously.

Yes, we should teach “citizenship” just as we teach match, writing, arts, and athletics — in the school during school hours. In the case of citizenship, strong history and civics classes (as we used to call them) are the ticket. Those who want to learn more outside the classroom should have that opportunity, but it should be their choice.

Study after study shows that students who serve do better in school, are more likely to go to college, and more likely to maintain that service as adults.

But the issue here is causation, or lack thereof. Elite colleges place a high value on community service. Thus, students who want to gain admission to elite colleges tend to perform lots of community service. These are the same kids who do well in school and who, of course, are likely to go to college. Then there are the kids who perform community service because they like to. As adults, naturally, they are more likely than their peers to “maintain that service.”

So when I’m President, I will set a goal for all American middle and high school students to perform 50 hours of service a year, and for all college students to perform 100 hours of service a year. This means that by the time you graduate college, you’ll have done 17 weeks of service.

For a smart guy, Obama says some stupid things. Here he says he’s setting this goal to accrue for the nation’s youth the advantages associated with “service” — strong performance in school, attendance at college, and service in later life. But, as noted above, the performance of service probably isn’t the cause of these benefits. So forcing kids who aren’t interested in performing service (because they don’t want to go to a fancy college and don’t think these activities are worth their time) isn’t going to make them into scholars or humanitarians.

We’ll reach this goal in several ways. At the middle and high school level, we’ll make federal assistance conditional on school districts developing service programs, and give schools resources to offer new service opportunities. At the community level, we’ll develop public-private partnerships so students can serve more outside the classroom.

Here Obama is characteristically slippery. What does he mean by “developing service programs.” Would it be sufficient, say, for the school system to provide students with a list of community service organizations they can contact if they want to serve, along with advisers to help match students with organizations? If so, then Obama’s proposal is empty. Students can already find community service opportunities without a formal program established by the school system.

More likely, Obama means that school districts will be required to institute a community service program that mirrors Obama’s “goal” — schools won’t receive federal money unless they require their students to “serve” at least 50 hours a year throughout middle school and high school. How else can Obama meet this goal? Thus, the federal government will coerce local school systems into coercing students into devoting substantial amounts of time to serving the community.

Many school districts already impose this sort of requirement. My daughters’ district did. In practice, the regime seemed pretty foolish. Students who were motivated by altruism or ambition or a combination of the two did some good works, though less than one might imagine. The rest obtained their credit through activities whose value to the community was unclear. For example, the local high school gave community service credit for working in the school store. The school got free labor; the students got large amounts of the credit they needed (plus free candy); the community got nothing. really.

It’s bad enough that any governmental unit would extend the mission of the public schools to conscripting students into community service. But if this to occur, the decision should be made at the local government without the heavy hand of the federal government. In the unlikely event that such programs are as valuable as Obama asserts, federal coercion should not be necessary to bring localities into the fold.

Modern-day liberals are expert in finding small ways to extend the power of the government and to diminish individual freedom. And they specialize in using deficiencies they have helped create as their pretext. Under the influence of liberal administrators and teachers whose approval of this country is less than wholehearted, our schools probably aren’t doing as good a job at “teaching young Americans to take citizenship seriously” as they used to. Americans sense the change. The liberal solution — meddle in the lives of students outside the classroom.

Obama hasn’t been in this racket long, but he’s a quick learner.

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