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Teaching Citizenship Is Not Slavery

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Even as Republicans in Congress are touting the virtues of local control over government programs, a libertarian legal group in Washington is asking federal courts around the country to usurp control over high school curricula. The Institute for Justice has filed suit against elected school officials in Chapel Hill, N.C., claiming that a community-service requirement for high school graduation violates students' constitutional rights.

The argument? Community-service learning (50 hours of it over four years) is the modern-day equivalent of slavery. Moreover, the lawyers claim, asking a child to serve the community in a placement he selects--anything from a recycling project to the public library--violates the right of parents to control the moral education of their children.

The Institute for Justice's client plaintiffs, two Chapel Hill High School students, Aric Herndon and John Reinhard 3rd, say they have nothing against community service. In fact, Aric Herndon, an Eagle Scout, volunteered his time to build benches for a school nature trail. But he doesn't think his school should require him to serve.

It is tempting to laugh off their lawsuit. After all, what's next? Lawsuits over math or gym requirements? Most people would agree that to equate a high school assignment with the African enslavement that prompted the 13th Amendment is offensive. Nonetheless, in our litigious environment, the suit is taken seriously. It is costing the school board tens of thousands of dollars to defend, despite the absence of any supporting precedent. Every federal court that has heard one of these challenges has rejected it.

The 13th Amendment, which bans "involuntary servitude," has always been interpreted by courts to prohibit coerced labor "akin to African slavery." It has thus been cited to prohibit indoctrination camps, peonage for new immigrants, and turning mental hospitals into lifetime work camps. These burdens are a far cry from serving your community where you choose. It seems unlikely Abe Lincoln had high school curricula in mind when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

The lawyers challenging service requirements also assert that they violate parents' constitutional right to raise their children as they see fit. But the important interest of parents in the upbringing of their children does not give them a veto over every public school requirement. A parent may think the world is flat, but her children can still be made to attend science classes where they are taught that it is round. Similarly, parents may think George Washington was evil, or that the Germans were the aggrieved party in World War II, but children can still be required to complete the coursework deemed appropriate by the school district.

Indeed, service-learning requirements cut to the core mission of public schools: to educate children for citizenship. If service-learning requirements were aimed at taking students' labor to meet agreed-upon community needs, then schools would direct students where and how to serve. Instead, students are free to choose their assignments, subject to the approval of a committee, which is charged with insuring only that students are not working for private gain or for-profit institutions.

The rationale for these requirements is not the community's desire to indenture students into community work, but to teach them the skills and habits of responsible citizenship. Just as important as the service itself are the acts of selecting and planning the service, and reflecting on the effectiveness and impact of the work after it is completed. These are educational activities that encourage children to explore problems in their community, to consider their responsibility as citizens to act, and to discover their own ability to make a positive contribution.

Furthermore, studies have shown that community service, coupled with preparation and reflection, is an effective experiential-learning activity that trains young people in the skills that will be most greatly prized in the workplace of the near future: teamwork, communication, and problem-solving. That is why slightly over one million secondary school students are now engaged in school-based community-service learning initiatives.

This case represents the worst of the litigation explosion. But it signifies something more than a spurious rights claim: It is a direct attack on the notion that the community can ask anything of the individual. The same mindset that rejects a service-learning requirement is likely to reject jury duty, military service, perhaps even the notion of highway speed limits. In all these instances, the community, speaking through its elected government, asks the individual for a small or large sacrifice of his or her time in service of the greater good. Such requests, rather than peonage, are the backbone of American society.

For 20 years we have allowed activist lawyers and federal courts to set the agenda of public schools, with results we can all see and lament. School boards are the ones who must answer to parents and to the community better to let them set the curriculum.

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