Friday, October 10, 2003

Rights and Reason: Compulsory Service in Illinois

Slavery was justified in antebellum America on economic grounds: Without slaves, Southern states argued, the region's agrarian economy would not survive. The notion of sacrificing human beings for the economic needs of others was discredited of course, due in large part to Illinois native Abraham Lincoln. Now the Land of Lincoln wants to revive involuntary servitude--and not just for blacks:
Illinois high school students could be required to perform volunteer work in their communities in order to graduate and devote more class time to physical education under ideas floated Thursday by Gov. Blagojevich.

The governor said both concepts -- hatched by him and wife Patti in the last week -- are preliminary but are designed to steer young people away from watching too much television and improve both their bodies and minds.

The ideas were presented in tandem with a more formalized plan that Blagojevich intends to present to the General Assembly next spring that would require 50 hours of community service for high-achieving students who qualify for state-funded $1,000 scholarships.

"I think it's important for all kids to recognize they have a responsibility to their communities," the governor said following a breakfast gathering in Springfield devoted to civic activism.

"To the extent you can keep kids focused on things that are productive -- whether it's their homework, their studies, working in a job or serving their community -- that's a healthy, productive, good use of time," he said. "That is much better than too much time in front of the television."

If a community service graduation requirement were added to the state curriculum, Illinois would join Maryland as the only states with such a standard. Maryland now requires 75 hours of community service to graduate high school, the governor said.
This is classic state paternalism. The governor reasons that all children, left to pursue their individual interests, will become antisocial, television watching parasites. He does not allow for the possibility that schoolchildren are pursuing their rational self-interests, be it a talent for music, playing a sport, participating in scientific research, and so forth. Instead, the governor brazenly declares the existence of a social "problem" and imposes a one-size-fits-all solution that, not coincidentally, provides the state with a captive work force to attend to political pet projects.

The governor's proposal did not occur without some context. Chicago's public schools require 40 hours of "mandatory volunteerism." A spokesman for the city schools gushed about the students' forced productivity: "We have kids who restore wetlands, build gardens and work with the homeless, housing, the environment, race relations and violence prevention. It's really exciting stuff." If Southern slaveholders of the 1840s had press spokesmen, no doubt they would have gushed about the increased cotton yield, record exports to Europe, and high standard of living resulting from the work of "volunteer" African workers.

Not surprisingly, the local teacher unions support the governor's proposal--assuming, of course, that the program comes with more taxpayer dollars:
Anne Davis, president of the Illinois Education Association, said the governor's ideas have merit and pledged backing from the state's largest teachers union. But she voiced concerns about whether cash-strapped local school districts could deal with the new requirements without more funding from the state.

"They seem laudable, but certainly the resources would need to be there to make it happen," Davis said.
The more control schools have over the lives of students, the more control teacher unions will have over the schools. The governor, being a Democrat, is well aware of this. It is in the interest of everyone in the establishment to ensure students are not given the ability to think or act in their own self-interest; if they did, there would be a sudden realization that government schools are an enemy of individual rights, and thus of America's founding principles. That's precisely the sort of message one cannot learn in an environment that holds "mandatory volunteerism" up as a heroic ideal.

(Thanks to Daryl Cobranchi for bringing this story to my attention.)

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