Should students be required to complete 40 hours of community service to qualify for the Michigan Merit Award? No
Charity must be free and inspired
John Adams, certainly one of the greatest of the American Founding Fathers and the first to call for full independence from Great Britain, argued that virtue was "a positive passion for the public good." Further, it can serve as "the only Foundation of Republics." Republics — ancient and modern — demand virtue. Indeed, without a virtuous citizenry, a republic (Latin: respublica, meaning the "good thing" or "common good") will decline dramatically. In his own understanding, Adams followed the greats of the ancient world: Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Cicero, all of whom noted the necessity of virtue for a properly-ordered community. More recently, Michigan’s most important political philosopher and cultural critic, Russell Kirk, believed that virtue is the "energy of (the) soul employed for the general good," as he noted in his essay, "Can Virtue Be Taught?" For 2,500 years, the West has generally recognized prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance as the four classical or pagan virtues. St. Paul, in his first letter to the peoples of Corinth, added three more: faith, hope and charity. Charity, he wrote forcefully, is the highest of all virtues, and it is the willingness to give of one’s self — one’s time, one’s talent, one’s treasure and even one’s life — for another.
Last year, the state of Michigan’s Merit Award Board mandated that each recipient of the Michigan Merit Award scholarship must perform 40 hours of community service. The impetus behind their decision is a noble one. The board — at least on the surface of things — is employing the very foundation of the best of the western tradition, demanding virtue of its citizens. The problem, however, is that charity must be freely chosen for it to mean anything. Such "mandatory volunteerism" is, at best, a perplexing paradox, destructive of community norms, and, at its worst, a revelation that something is truly and deeply wrong with a culture that cannot inspire such volunteerism and charity freely from its citizens.
In his penetrating analysis of America in the 1830s, the French philosopher Alexis De Tocqueville observed:
"Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations. ... Americans combine to give fêtes, found seminaries, build churches, distribute books, and send missionaries to the antipodes. Hospitals, prisons, and schools take shape in that way. ... In every case, as the head of any new undertaking, where in France you would find the government or in England some territorial magnate, in the United States you are sure to find an association."
As for liberty, Tocqueville contended, the natural formation of voluntary associations allows Americans to do for themselves what governments in Europe might do for their citizenry. America, in this respect, was superior to Europe. Governments and bureaucracies, Tocqueville claimed, are neither organic nor subtle. They are unable to make nuanced or delicate decisions, as can voluntary associations in which "feelings and ideas are renewed, the heart enlarged." Governments, try though they might, are incapable of changing the true morals or being of the individual. "Once (government) leaves the sphere of politics to launch out on this new track," argued Tocqueville, "it will, even without intending this, exercise an intolerable tyranny." Worse, the control of societal change and growth is a zero-sum game. If the citizenry controls the power to make decisions, the government must be necessarily and proportionately smaller. In a "vicious cycle," the reverse is also true. "The more government takes the place of associations," Tocqueville wrote in "Democracy in America," "the more will individuals lose the idea of forming associations and need the government to come to their help." Such, one must fear, will be the result of the well-intentioned community service requirement of the MMA.
Even more disturbing is the possibility that our culture has reached a point where such service must be made mandatory. America, like the West which gave it birth, has been built on acts of charity and love. One only has to think of the greatest moments of sacrifice in the history of this country to be reminded of what sacrifice is and means: the many, many Patriot-farmers in the local militias and Continental Army of the Revolution; the two million Union soldiers (94 percent of whom volunteered) who ultimately erased the scourge of slavery from the Republic; the numerous who died in the trenches of France in World War I or who liberated the Holocaust camps from the National Socialists in World War II; or, the three men who, on a beautiful September morning in the year 2001, overpowered Islamist terrorists who had hijacked a passenger airliner, thus preventing them from killing any more innocent civilians. Less dramatically, but equally important, one only has to think of the many reform movements in American history, from the demand for voting rights for women to the housing of the homeless to the feeding of the poor in the soup kitchens.
Should the State of Michigan really desire service and charity from its citizens it must not mandate them, thus diminishing — if not outright obliterating — the meaning, purpose and significance of the acts themselves. Instead, it should demand a proper education, an education rooted in the liberal arts that teaches, by its very nature, the meaning of the seven classical and Judeo-Christian virtues. It should teach the stories and histories and biographies that inspire. It should tell of King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans at Thermopylae; of Cicero, the last of the Roman republicans; of the many Christian martyrs in the Roman arenas, or of the many martyrs after — Thomas Á Becket, Jan Hus, Sir Thomas More and St. John Fisher. It should tell the story of George Washington refusing to accept a dictatorship at Newburgh; of the 54th Massachusetts, the black regiment that volunteered to take Fort Wagner in 1863, losing its troops in roughly 20 minutes; of Tom Burnett, who on Sept. 11, 2001, said to his wife: "We’re all going to die but three of us are going to do something. I love you honey."
Republican virtue. It is essential for vital and healthy society. But, it must be taught for it to inspire. To force it, is to ruin the thing itself.
Bradley J. Birzer, Ph.D., is Russell Amos Kirk Chair in history and director of American studies at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Mich.