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Culture And Society in Voice for Reason
Culture & SocietyEducation & Multiculturalism

Compulsory Service for High School Students

by Tom Bowden | January 01, 2000

More than two decades ago, President Nixon ended the military draft. Now a new and more insidious form of conscription is threatening Pennsylvania public school students: House Bill 1908. This bill would make “community service” a requirement for high school graduation.

Compulsory service programs, already operative in many communities, typically give students four years to complete, say, 60 hours of labor. The students must not receive any payment. They can choose whether to serve the elderly, or the poor, or the disabled, so long as they serve others rather than themselves.

The penalty for dodging the new draft is simple: no diploma.

In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, angry parents and students took the local school board to court, arguing that such a mandatory service program for high school students imposed the kind of “involuntary servitude” forbidden by the United States Constitution.

But a U.S. Court of Appeals approved the Bethlehem program, holding that so long as school boards stop short of putting students in chains for disobeying — so long as the students have some alternative, even an “exceedingly bad” one — there is no involuntary servitude.

Mandatory community service for high school students presents a clear moral issue: By what right do we treat our sons and daughters as beasts of burden?

Advocates of mandatory service like to claim sole possession of the moral high ground. To them, the moral duty of unpaid service to others is an unquestionable absolute. But not all citizens concede an unchosen obligation to serve. Holding their own lives as their highest value, many reject as evil the notion that being needy confers on some people a moral claim to free labor from others.

As far back as 1943, the Supreme Court made it clear that boards of education may not dictate such fundamental moral choices. In a decision that prohibited a school board from forcing young Jehovah’s Witnesses to salute the flag, the Court said: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

School boards who hold diplomas for ransom, pending compliance with the prevailing orthodoxy of self-sacrifice, are engaging in nothing less than unconstitutional moral indoctrination.

Proponents of forced service insist that it is really for the students’ own good. For example, the Bethlehem program claimed that compulsory service helps students “develop pride in assisting others.”

But does anyone really believe that students will develop pride by succumbing to orders, abandoning their own personal projects, and serving the needs of strangers? The true source of pride is the achievement of one’s own values. Pride in oneself cannot result from wiping one’s own values out of existence.

On close scrutiny, the so-called educational purposes for community service are just so much window dressing. Any program, no matter how perverse, can be rationalized in that manner.

Suppose, for example, we want to justify a program that involves breaking students’ legs. First, we motivate the students by withholding their diplomas unless they take part. Then we encourage the students to engage in meaningful participation by choosing which of their legs is to be crushed.

Finally, we list the “educational purposes.” Not only will students’ wheelchair experiences teach them to empathize with the permanently disabled, but students will also “develop pride in their ability to overcome adversity,” through the valuable “coping skills” learned while enduring intense physical pain.

Why is it so easy to see the horror in a program that breaks students’ bones, yet so hard to see the same horror in a program that breaks students’ spirits?

Some say that students should no more be permitted to evade the community service obligation than any other part of the required curriculum, such as reading and writing.

But there is a crucial difference here. Our children must learn to read and write so they can pursue their own goals as adults, whatever those individual goals may be. Mandatory service, however, confers no such personal benefits; it only gets recalcitrant students accustomed to self-sacrifice.

Who does stand to gain from programming schoolchildren to believe that self-sacrifice equals self-interest? Who ultimately benefits when those children have become docile adults who, faced with a demand for sacrifice, no longer think to assert their individual rights?

Only those dangerous few who seek unchecked political power over others.

About The Author

Tom Bowden

Analyst and Outreach Liaison, Ayn Rand Institute