Education Opinion

A Need To Restore the ‘Dignity’ of Public Service

By Robert W. Peebles — April 23, 1986 3 min read

On a bitterly cold day 26 Januarys ago, John F. Kennedy stood on the Capitol steps and asked us to think about what we could do for our country. He was a leader, one who inspired us to join his search for excellence in public service. When he was assassinated, thousands of young people responded by joining the Peace Corps and other programs set up to serve human needs.

Today, service to others seems to have lost much of its allure. Our best students are not flocking to become public servants or teachers. Instead, they head for more remunerative professions and the corporate world. Surveys show that young people place careers in public service at the bottom of their list of career choices.

This failure to attract young people to public service threatens our national survival as surely as the federal deficit and the possibility of nuclear war. It may be our most serious problem as we approach the final decade of the 20th century.

What has changed during the past quarter- century? A series of events--the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, and others; the Vietnam War and years of bitter divisiveness; Watergate and the resignations of Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon--produced profound changes in our attitudes and thinking. Ineffective leadership and corruption at all levels of government brought disillusionment and an increasingly negative perception of government. We are willing now to believe the worst about our leaders because so many have betrayed us. We pejoratively refer to public servants as bureaucrats.

Yet today’s problems cry out for leadership and creative bureaucrats. The problems of national defense and the deficit and an array of other issues demand leaders with vision, imagination, courage, stamina, and skill. This need for leadership is closely tied to our need for teachers who can relate to young people, accept them as they are while stretching them to the limits of their potential, and motivate and prepare them to become, in tum, dedicated public servants and inspired teachers.

How can we reverse the negative perception of government and restore the dignity and rewards of service to others? How can we enhance the prestige of the teaching profession? How can we attract outstanding young people to classrooms, city halls, state legislatures, and government agencies? .

How not to attract capable people to teaching and government service is easier to say.

We will not lure bright and committed young people to the classroom or to careers in government by offering starting salaries of less than $20,000 while I.B.M. and prestigious law firms and advertising agencies offer much more. Teachers cannot be at their best during school hours if they must moonlight to be able to afford families and plan for retirement.

Higher salaries are only part of the solution. We must also make public service and teaching more respected and more satisfying. Teachers must be allowed to participate in decisionmaking that affects them. They need professional training and stimulation, as well as sabbaticals to renew their spirits and become re-energized to return to the classroom. Young people who choose careers in public service need internships that teach them how to work creatively through the maze of codes, policies, and regulations to find new solutions to problems.

We must identify these young people early. Those who have potential for public service and for teaching then need training that combines actual experience with academic work to prepare them for the challenges they will face. Coaches and successful corporations have this knack for finding talent and nurturing it. Perhaps they can give us lessons.

Other Western democracies, the Chinese, and the Soviets do not downplay the importance of government service. Teaching is a highly respected profession in many countries. It must again become so here.

The information age produces an avalanche of data that requires the ability to choose, interpret, and analyze. To allow a hit-or-miss approach to attracting and keeping talented individuals in public careers would be a tragic mistake. We simply cannot afford to perpetuate the attitude expressed by the familiar phrase “not bad for government work.”