Community service is always praised as an honorable activity, at least when it isn’t assigned in court, but should it be given extra emphasis by schools in admission decisions? Should schools (or society) expect some minimum level of community service of college applicants (or anyone)? Should it be viewed as experientially or ethically superior to time spent developing one’s talents? Time spent gaining job experience? Time spent earning income? Arnold Kling takes a hard line on this question, arguing that community service deserves no more praise than other endeavors. He believes the topic is worthy of a high school graduation speech.
One commenter on Kling’s post noted that Milton Friedman once asked William Buckley (who advocated national service) whether cleaning the toilet in a public school does more to serve the community than cleaning the toilet in a McDonalds. I’m inclined to agree with Kling that there are many activities that have at least as much value as community service. He says:
“If you judge people by how their life’s work contributed to better lives for people and less poverty in the world, then I will gladly stack up the Henry Fords and Thomas Edisons against the Mother Theresas. Collectively, the capitalists and entrepreneurs have a much better claim on our gratitude than do the icons of community service.”
But I also assert that it all depends on the nature of the activity, which should be self-evident. Community service might also reflect on the breadth of an individual’s experiences, or their “well-roundedness.” Still, even “having fun” has value, sometimes great value. If you like your work, your productivity and enjoyment count for a lot. Like Kling, I have strong reservations about conferring special status to time spent doing community service activity. It can be good or it can be of less value than other choices. It can even be a fraud.