Can we teach the next generation how to be good citizens? I strongly believe we can and that school-based community service programs can help serve this worthy goal.
In striving to instill an ethic of civic involvement, however, we must first clarify an increasingly clouded debate over community service and young people.This is, at its core, a discussion about the rights and responsibilities of being an American.
Let's put this issue in context. Many troubling indicators - teen pregnancy, drug use and violence among them - warn us that many of our young people are drifting away.
Beneath these headline-grabbing problems, however, lies a much wider epidemic of youthful apathy and alienation, even despair. Several years back, a national People For the American Way study found a troubling disconnection between young people and citizenship. We also found that fewer than two-fifths of our young people had recently been involved in any effort to help their community - though most were willing, if asked.
In an attempt to fill this vacuum, many schools across the nation now ask their students to complete a minimum number of hours of community service (usually no more than 50 to 60) as a graduation requirement.
Again, some perspective: The average American child spends several hours a day, or hundreds of hours a year, just watching television. This kind of service requirement is hardly an onerous burden. And many young people across America don't find it burdensome at all.
Thanks to these high school service programs, hundreds of thousands of young people are spending time helping others who need it. They are visiting elderly people who might otherwise feel isolated and alone. They are helping to keep our parks free of litter, assisting at day-care centers and health-care facilities, tutoring young children who are learning to read.
They are not getting paid for their efforts, but theirs is a rich moral reward. Most important of all, they are learning how to become a positive force in their communities - the kind of lesson that can last a lifetime.
But the lawyers at the misnamed Institute for Justice take a negative view of these programs. They label this kind of service requirement "involuntary servitude" and have mounted a number of lawsuits to stop it.
Of course, community service programs in the schools must be sure to stay within constitutional bounds. They can do so by making sure the programs have clear educational purposes and components. And, like a program in Pennsylvania, they should provide a wide array of service options so that young people aren't forced to participate in activities that make them uncomfortable.
If they follow these common-sense guidelines, even a passionate civil libertarian like myself has no qualms about school-based service programs.