The Nixon Enigma

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 service 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. If you volunteer in a soup kitchen or help the homeless, you should also be working to eliminate the causes of homelessness. That enterprise, of course, logically leads to social change and to politics as the necessary instrument of change. But many volunteer organizations, either because of their tax status, their funding sources or their necessary nonpartisanship, take great pains to eschew politics. A few years ago, when students affiliated with Phillips Brooks House, Harvard University's pre-eminent community-service institution for undergraduates, came out in support of the school's "living wage" campaign, they earned a rebuke from the university's new president, Lawrence Summers, for taking what he judged to be an overly partisan stand.

Local service projects -- George Bush Senior's "thousand points of light" -- fragment political energy. Yale Law School professors Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott, in their 1999 book, The Stakeholder Society, take contemporary liberals to task for their unwillingness to tackle the enormous and central problem of wealth inequality in favor of "a thousand lesser policies." Universal service seems to be a pretty good example of just that. Unlike conservatives, modern liberals are unafraid to use the government to take care of what the market can or will not. But to rely on an army of young amateurs to deal with societal needs seems a strangely indirect way to go about it. If inner-city schools are struggling, isn't the solution to give them more money for their infrastructures and teacher salaries instead of spending the money on an at best lightly trained conscript?

In addition, employers in both the public and private sectors, gifted with a national service corps of nearly 4 million, would be sorely tempted to use this pool of cheap, captive labor to phase out salaried (and benefited) employees. As Service Employees International Union lobbyist Skip Roberts dryly notes, "That might be the only reason why it might appeal to anyone in the White House."

But what of the character-building aspect of it? It's undeniable that some young people would have their first taste of service in such a program. However, with a vast majority of high schools participating in community service (83 percent, according to a 1999 study by the U.S. Department of Education), most students have already been exposed to the concept. And so far, research has failed to link even voluntary service with increased civic engagement. A recent study by the National Association of Secretaries of State found that youth who performed service were no more likely to be involved in politics than their nonvolunteering peers. The fact is, Americans between the ages of 15 and 25 already volunteer more than any other age group; but they also vote far less (and the number of voters continues to shrink). According to a 2002 study released by the University of Maryland's Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE), young Americans are also less likely than their (admittedly also pretty disengaged) elders to have participated in traditional forms of civic engagement -- writing a letter to their congressman or newspaper, for example, or marching in a demonstration or volunteering for a political campaign.

When asked about this, the apolitical young respond that politics is, in effect, useless. Thomas Ehrlich is a former board member of the Corporation for National Service and a current scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for Teaching and Learning who studies civic engagement and service learning. He has found that "one of the reasons kids give [for their apolitical tendencies] is that they don't see a chance to make a difference. They can tutor a kid in school, clean up a park, serve in a community kitchen and feel that they're making a difference. But trying to change the political process in their community, much less the country -- they don't see that happening."

Tellingly, the CIRCLE study found that the civic activities young people preferred were individual or nongovernmental: buying a certain brand because they agreed with its values, for example, or donating to a charity. After all, as Michael Delli Carpini, a scholar of civic life and the dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, has noted, "Civic engagement has become defined as the one-on-one experience of working in a soup kitchen, clearing trash from a local river or tutoring a child once a week. What is missing is an awareness of the connection between the individual, isolated problems these actions are intended to address and the larger world of public policy." To enshrine what is in effect institutionalized volunteerism in a federal program could very well end up merely reinforcing the idea that acts of kindness, random or not, rather than governmental action, are the solution to society's ills.

And that is the central paradox of national service: It is big government for people who don't like big government -- the counterpart of government support for local "faith- based" social services, or for traditional marriage as the cure for poverty. The current national service debate is really a holdover from the Clinton administration.

While liberals are rightly ambivalent about national service, it has gained supporters among self-styled "national greatness" conservatives, thinkers like William Kristol and David Brooks who are concerned with restoring America's sense of purpose and grandeur. For them, government is meant not so much to govern, or even to solve social ills, but to inspire and provide its citizens with a Teddy Roosevelt-like sense of resolve and destiny. Brooks, for example, has argued that what the federal government needs to focus on is building grand monuments and institutions like the Library of Congress.

Universal service would surely be an institution, and it would provide lots of people with a sense of purpose. But surely that's setting the bar pretty low for a federal program. As Tocqueville pointed out in the 1830s, America has always had a rich social fabric of voluntary institutions. The point of government is not to keep its citizens busy living lives of vigorous action but to do what markets cannot. Yet active government requires an activist public agenda, which in turn depends on activated voters. If there's a paucity of civic engagement among the young, it is less in the area of volunteering than in taking seriously the enterprise of citizenship.