Nicholas N. Zolnerowich
Sherwood High School
Sandy Spring, MD
First Place Winner, Maryland
Arguably no single person has done more for this country in the past hundred years than Martin Luther King Jr. He was a noble man who inspired greatness, and who was intimately familiar with service, giving his life, in every sense of the word, to his cause, his people, and his country. He once said that “Everybody can be great...because anybody can serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”1 This is incredibly profound, and yet startlingly simple. All that is required to serve others is to have the love necessary to do so. In his eyes, serving was something personal, voluntary, and uniquely special. However, some would seek to change this reality. There are some who believe that young Americans should endure at least a year of mandatory community service before progressing with their lives. I will say this: their hearts are in the right place. They are thinking about all the good that could be accomplished if every youngster was put to work, and they are thinking about the virtue these youngsters would acquire through the process. Unfortunately, that is where their thinking stops. Such a practice would be a completely unnecessary government intrusion that would destroy the true point of service.
What exactly would the government be mandating here? It would advocate forced volunteerism, an oxymoron if there ever was one. Indeed, the very idea would be laughable, if it were not so disturbing, especially seeing how our country exalts acts of service. How can a government that places the service of, say, a war hero on such a lofty pedestal degrade civilian service into just another legal requirement people are forced to trudge through? What is more, there is no point. The people who want to volunteer will. They will gladly accept opportunities to serve others, or will seek these opportunities out themselves; they do not need a bunch of legalistic, bureaucratic regulations in order to help others. Likewise, those who would not under normal circumstances be engaging in community service will fail to fulfil the goals of said programs, largely because, as young adults, they will resent their freedom being taken away. Many of them will not show up to fulfill their obligations, and those that do will likely produce shabby, sub-standard work. Not only will the work they produce be poor, but they will also fail to acquire any of the ethics they are supposed to acquire while engaging in this kind of work. No matter which group this applies to, its goal fails: it is either a pointless waste of resources, or detrimental and demoralizing.
There is, however, a bigger issue at hand here. What is the role of government? What is the government able to enforce? What should it enforce? These are questions that have literally shaped the course of history, and for good reason: they are extremely important and difficult to answer. Just about everyone agrees the government should outlaw murder, but less believe it should outlaw polygamy. Just about everyone agrees the government should collect taxes, but no one can agree on how much. What about forced community service? Does the government have the right to enact such a program? Absolutely not. It should not be within the government’s power to enforce such ludicrous practice. Not only would it be illogical and ineffective, but in truth it would be immoral, turning these young adults into little more than slaves (for what is a slave but he who is made to work against his will?). Would this practice provide some benefits? Of course; there is no denying that houses would be built, trees would be planted, and impoverished children would have someone to read to them, all of which is good and should be pursued, but not like this. Community service is important, and has a serious potential to benefit both the lives of those served and those serving. However, that potential is removed if the only reason it happens is because Big Brother says so.
In addition to the ethical concerns of enacting this sort of program, there are practical problems as well. How would the government enforce such a law? What happens when people realize they do not want to waste their time cleaning up parks because Uncle Sam says so and decide not to show? The most logical answer would be fines, or perhaps the taking away of certain tax breaks, but even this, given the typical bureaucratic red tape, would be unrealistic and ineffective if more than a tiny portion of people decided to resist. And what happens if people truly set themselves against this program and decide to ignore financial repercussions? The consequences will progress to higher and higher fines, and then jail time. Is the government really prepared or able to incarcerate 10% of the population, or 15% or 30 % or 50% for refusing to work? Of course not. In reality, no matter the government’s motivations, the success of a law depends on the peoples’ willingness to obey it. This sort of program, which reason reveals to be silly and unethical, is doomed for failure. Obviously, this should not happen…so what should we do instead?
A more proper role for government would be encouraging—not forcing—young people to help others by creating opportunities to serve. The government should work with schools, be they high schools or colleges, to spread awareness of volunteer opportunities that young adults might not otherwise know about. This would give those with the willingness to serve the ability to do so, bettering themselves and others voluntarily. And as for those who did not already wish to give themselves in service to others? Schools (and parents, but they are harder to oversee) should, from an early age, attempt to instill in all children a sense of sympathy, empathy, and compassion, so that they are more likely to seek out these opportunities on their own. With a desire to serve others and opportunities readily available, the same result would theoretically be achieved, while still possessing the integrity of true service, and without government enforcement. Indeed, a 1997 government survey showed that in schools that provided opportunities for volunteer work, the participation rate was 52%, and while the participation rate of schools that both provided and required said service was higher (56%) it was barely so.2 The difference in participation is minimal, but the difference in quality is enormous. “Quality over quantity” is a cliché, to be sure, but one that holds true here. The amount of volunteers put to work may decrease, but by virtue of their motivation and sense of truly “giving” the results will far surpass those of the proposed government mandate.
In the end, it all depends on what one truly hopes to gain from a program like this. If the aim is simply to organize a cheap labor force, than this is the way to go. However, if the idea is to accomplish charity while at the same time giving young adults a sense of love and perspective, than this will never work. As Ghandi said, “Service which is rendered without joy helps neither the servant nor the served. But all other pleasures and possessions pale into nothingness before service which is rendered in a spirit of joy.”3 Charity, if it is expected to accomplish anything, cannot be forced. It must be nurtured, cared for, and brought to fruition through love and grace, and to this end we all must strive.
- King Jr, Martin Luther; “Goodreads Inc.” (2014) [http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/23924.Martin_Luther_King_Jr_]
- Wiley, Richard. National Center for Education Statistics. U.S. Department of Education, Apr. 1997. Website, 27 Oct. 2014
- Ghandi, Mahatma; “Goodreads Inc.” (2014) [http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/service?page=2]