Benjamin Barber

A New Requirement for the Educated Person:Community Service

VTR Date: March 25, 1990

Guest: Barber, Benjamin


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Benjamin Barber
Title: A New Requirement for the Educated Person: Community Service
VTR: 3/25/90

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. In his trailblazing 1988 commencement address, Edward J. Bloustein, my longtime friend and President at Rutgers University, spoke boldly and feelingly about community service as a new requirement for the educated person. Concern that “I’m all right, Jack”, had become our national slogan, our political article of faith on the campus as well as off, this profoundly humane leader in the American academic community told his Rutgers audience, “Of recent years, it had become disturbingly fashionable for people to live as if the human condition were largely the product of personal choice and effort in the free marketplace of life, and as if greed and private wealth were sovereign virtues. To be sure, human choice and effort are important, and they do shape, to a significant degree, the human condition. And, of course, material goods contribute greatly to both the private and the public good. But the naked pursuit of individual interest and material gain is a hopelessly inadequate source of personal satisfaction. It is also a thorough distortion of the idea of civic virtue in the democratic state. This anemic ethic has flourished on ignorance and isolation. Born of a poverty of cultural imagination, it explains why so many among us are without material want, but are wasted and unfulfilled emotionally and spiritually”. His response, to propose that we look at community service as necessary component of the learning experience which constitutes liberal education. “This and other American universities”, he proposed, “must now explore ways to enlarge the liberal component of education by instituting a requirement of civic service”. Now, Ed and I had long planned to discuss his intriguing proposal, and student and faculty reaction to it, here on The Open Mind. Unhappily, however, today‘s program must instead be a memorial of sorts to that gentle, thoughtful scholar. My personal salute to another old friend, to a fine human being, and to his idea whose time has surely come. For President Bloustein died unexpectedly, tragically, in December 1989, though not before seeing significant steps taken at Rutgers toward the realization of his suggestion of community service as a new requirement for the educated person. Most instrumental in taking those steps has been my guest today, political scientist Benjamin Barber, Director of Rutgers’ Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy. Now, in another setting recently, in fact, on Rutgers’ own television series, “Symposium”, Ben and I discussed voluntarism in America, Ronald Reagan’s emphasis on the private rather than the public sector in dealing with America’s social ills. And President Bush’s “Thousand Points of Light”. But we didn’t specifically deal with the fate of Ed Bloustein’s strong proposal that civic service be an educational requirement. And I would like to do so today.

Ben, what happened to the proposal?

BARBER: Well, during the last year of Ed’s life, we made significant progress towards getting faculty, student, and community support for an idea which would eventually lead (perhaps by 1992 or 1993) to a requirement for every single Rutgers undergraduate in New Brunswick, in Camden, and in Newark to engage in an education–based community service course as a part of their graduation requirements. Now that, as you might imagine, at a university as large – in some ways, I think, Ed would have said, “As Byzantine” – as Rutgers, takes a good deal of time. It’s not something you do by snapping your fingers. It’s not something you can order a faculty or a student body to do. And from the beginning, Ed insisted that this be a participatory process in which students, faculty, and administrators took part. He asked me, about a year and a half ago, to chair a committee on education for civic leadership, which was to bring together about 75 members of three campuses, Newark, Camden, and New Brunswick, administrators, students, and faculty, to talk about ways in which we might be able to make this program go. After a year of meeting, we came up with a proposal, took it to the Board of Governors, which endorsed the proposal in principle, and that proposal is now in the hands of the several faculty constituencies at Rutgers who are looking at its curricular or educational dimensions. That’s a brief, encapsulated version.

HEFFNER: Will the proposal, if fully enacted and carried out, mean that every student at the university posing a model then for other universities in the country, have to participate in some social activity, some community work?

BARBER: Yes. The fundamental difference between our proposal and the ones that have been launched at a number of universities around the country is that most universities and colleges are experimenting with voluntarism as a voluntary activity of a small number of students who wish to be engaged. What Ed Bloustein envisioned, and what I think this committee that I have chaired has agreed with is that voluntarism is not so much a sign of the goodwill of volunteers; it is a necessity of civic virtue in a democracy. Moreover, citizenship, voluntarism, the will to help others, is not necessarily something we’re born with. It’s acquired. It’s learned. And if it’s learned, that means it has to be part of the educational curriculum. So the difference is really, at Rutgers, that our students, if the faculty and student body ultimately do embrace the proposal, it will become a mandatory aspect of every student’s graduation requirements.

HEFFNER: Of course, the question that I would have to raise – and I’m not totally innocent in all of this; and I’m baiting you a little – is how mandatory will it be? What will be mandatory? Simply to take a course or to be involved in what Ed saw as community activity?

BARBER: When we first started talking about this on campus, a lot of students, smart students, said to us, “What on earth are you talking about? You’re going to mandate voluntarism? You’re going to make us, you’re going to compel us to be volunteers? You’re going to compel charity? That’s impossible. That’s an oxymoron. It makes no sense”. And they were right. To compel voluntarism does not make sense. That’s why two things really have to be done. One is that one has to understand we’re not just talking about voluntarism; were talking about citizenship. We’re talking about civic responsibility. We’re not talking about people being nice to others out of charitable instincts; we’re talking about taking responsibility for ourselves by taking responsibility for the communities in which we live. That’s something that has to be taught. Nonetheless, I think students were right to say that if you try simply to compel students, you’re going to have a problem. So the device we came up with – and actually, the student body, the student advisory committee had about 50 students working on an advisory committee – they came up with this proposal. They said, “Okay, you want a civic education course. Let’s have the course compulsory, mandatory for all students. And let’s have some out-of-the-classroom service component mandatory, compulsory for all students. But let’s permit students to choose the form of service, the form of out-of-the-classroom experience they will have”. So, in that sense, there is a built-in optional part of the program, which means that, though each student will have to take the course and each student will have to do something out of the classroom, what they do, how they do it, where they do it will be their choice, not our mandate.

HEFFNER: But you know, the other day, I indicated before, you and I were discussing voluntarism. Ed wasn’t thinking of voluntarism so much, was he? He ws thinking of something mandated, something required, as you may require language, as you may require science, as you may require 120 points for graduation. Why did the concept of voluntarism become involved with this?

BARBER: I don’t think Ed became involved with the concept of voluntarism; I think voluntarism became involved with Ed’s concept. Which is to say, the concept that‘s around in the country, that’s there in the congressional legislation that’s being proposed nowadays, the things a lot of campuses are doing, all fall under the rubric of voluntarism. And it was natural that Ed’s proposal, which was much more ambitious than that, should be kind of swallowed up by the idea of voluntarism. A lot of what Ed wanted to do and a lot of what we’ve been doing is to try to transform the talk and conversation about this topic into a conversation about civic virtue, which he used in that speech you cited, civic responsibility, civic empowerment, and civic involvement. And to make clear that what we are trying to do is not to create a country of philanthropists, but to create a country of good citizens.

HEFFNER: Do you have any problem with a requirement that a student not only (again, going through the list) take a language perhaps – though that’s gone by the board largely these days – take science, etcetera, mathematics, actually participate in a community activity, do something for his fellow citizens, as a means of learning, as you’ve suggested, civic virtue? As a means of learning citizenship? Do you have any problem with that compulsory…

BARBER: Not only do I not have a problem with it, I must say most of my colleagues in pharmacy, in engineering, in the performing arts, in many fields, will tell you over and over again the best kind of learning incorporates an experiential element. We don’t just learn by passively listening. We learn by doing, by acting, by being involved. In the area of citizenship, civic responsibility and community, the way you learn actively is to get involved in community service, to get involved in citizenship. Not simply to sit back and have a civics teacher give you a lecture about the Constitution, that monumentalizes our liberties and our rights, without ever empowering students to do something about it.

HEFFNER: Well, I’m going beyond that. I’m going beyond the question of: Is it best to have a laboratory, or is it best to have an experience outside the classroom? I’m talking about the university requiring that you have the experience outside of the classroom. That if it is a course in civic virtue, that you be virtuous and do something for your community.

BARBER: Well, I think what’s being required though here really is something that’s educational. I don’t think it would be appropriate for the university to require students to, say, work for the Democrats or work for the Republicans, require them to be engaged in explicitly political activities. I’m not even sure I believe that it’s appropriate for the university to require students to go out and help others for the sake of helping others.

HEFFNER: Why not?

BARBER: Because I think the ultimate justification has to be pedagogical, has to be educational. Indeed, in talking to the community agencies who are involved with us, with these students, in placements, I’ve often said to them, “We hope we may do a little good for you. We hope at least we don’t do any damage. But we are really asking for you to enter an educational partnership with us. We’d like you to help educate our young people. And we need you. We need you to take these young people into placements. We hope they do a little good. But you’ll probably do as much good for them as they will do for you and your clients.

HEFFNER: But, Ben, at a time when the infrastructure of this country is collapsing – we talk about that so much – never mind the doom and gloom, we just have the need for a great deal of human effort being applied to a great many human problems. Why do we shy away from saying, “It is obligatory. It is part of an educational process, and it is obligatory that you work at, no – never mind the straw men, the Republican Party of the Democratic Party – but The American Red Cross or a local social agency, or working in the fields, or working to bolster that infrastructure”. What’s the problem with that?

BARBER: I don’t think there’s a problem. It’s really a question of how we characterize what is being done. I do think that schools and universities have an educational mission, and they have to think of what they do in educational terms. I believe it’s profoundly educational to ask young people to serve in the community. But if you justify it by saying, “There’s an infrastructure out there that needs repair. There’s an infrastructure that has to be fixed. Someone’s got to do it. Let’s conscript the nation’s university students to do it”, that’s a very different matter than saying, “It’s an integral part, a necessary part of a student’s education to be of service. If along the way we can do something for the nation’s infrastructure…” And I think, by the way, something can be done for the nation’s infrastructure along the way, but that’s not the primary motivation. The motivation has to be educational. We are in the first place an educational institution. And we have to justify everything that we do, not in terms of abstract moral standards, but in terms of educational standards. And I think, however, in this case, the nice thing about it is that there’s no real tension. We can do both at once. We can serve the nation’s infrastructure, we can provide man and womanpower for the nation’s needy, and at the same time, we can do a terrific job educating our students in the responsibilities of citizenship.

HEFFNER: Do you have a problem with the notion of national service as channeled through the school systems of this country?

BARBER: Well, 15 years ago I wrote an essay which was fairly widely distributed, calling for national citizen service, and calling for the establishment of a civilian Pentagon of kinds, and asking that every 18 to 24-year-old in America spend 12 to 18 months in some sort of civilian service. They’d also have the military as an option, but if they didn’t want to serve in the military, they would be conscripted to serve in a civilian capacity. I’ve grown a little more suspicious of that notion, partly because my friends have persuaded me that to establish national citizen service on that model would require the erection of an extraordinary civilian bureaucracy, a kind of civilian Pentagon: top-heavy, bureaucratic, federal standards, all the problems that we’ve seen in the seventies and eighties that have made such trouble for the federal government. It seems to me that Ed Bloustein’s remarkable idea of creating education-based community service is a way around that problem, because it would permit us to have a national standard, a national requirement, a federal requirement of community service for every young person; but permit that community service to be carried out at the local level, in the schools, high schools, colleges, junior colleges, colleges and universities, of this country. So that you’d have a national requirement, but to be locally played out through the schools. This would make citizen service, civilian service, national service, an educational process. It would be as valuable to the young people as it would be to the nation. And it would really obviate the problems of the gargantuan bureaucracy which might otherwise be created. It would also be a lot cheaper.

HEFFNER: Let’s say both of those things are noble: that it would be a lot cheaper and that there would be a devolution of power. There wouldn’t be the giant bureaucracy that you’ve described. What about the young people themselves? What have you found out about their willingness to meet this requirement? Without getting into the oxymoron complaint.

BARBER: Well, Dick, there are two interesting responses. On the one hand, young people don’t want to be made to do anything. And one understands that. It’s an American instinct. You can’t make me do anything. I want to be choosing anything that I do. And, as we know, for the last 30 years, in the university there’s been a movement away from requirements, although now, in the eighties, some people are beginning to think we’ve moved too far away. So there is certainly the instinct a lot of students had, which was, “You can’t make me do that”. Never mind the oxymoron. “You can’t make me do anything. You certainly can’t make me do that”. On the other hand, what we found is that something like 40 to 50 percent of the students at Rutgers University – and we are a mixed income, mixed racial university with kids from disadvantaged backgrounds as well as advantaged backgrounds – we found that 40, 50, maybe 55 percent were already involved in some form of community service. And many of those and some of the others welcomed the possibility of seeing community service as a dimension of the curriculum. Whether or not it was mandatory or not there was a question about it. But an awful lot of students felt the most valuable thing or one of the most valuable things they did in their lives was to engage in community service. And a lot, I think, felt that the university had made itself irrelevant to the civic concerns of this country, and that Ed Bloustein’s proposal was one way of showing that the university also cared about the future of this democracy.

HEFFNER: You’ve sort of indicated in your writings that when we eliminated the notion of in loco parentis – crazy like a parent, as it was frequently described – that the university just withdrew then. I don’t just mean Rutgers. But universities withdrew form the whole matter of civic obligation, the universities’ obligation to the youngsters, and in turn, the youngsters’ obligations to anyone and everyone else.

BARBER: Well, the university has rather imitated America. America has always had a hard time. We’re considered a centrist, a middling country. But in certain ways we have a very hard time with a middling ideology. We’re always torn between despotism on the one hand and anarchism on the other hand. And we have a very hard time finding the middle road. So, for a long time, American schools played the role of the parent, the strict authoritarian parent. They told students what to do. They had parietal hours. We all remember the one-foot-on-the-floor rule when there was a woman visiting the room. The door had to be open six inches, and so forth, those very strict authoritarian rules. When the university was really forced out of the business of governing in the place of the parents in the sixties, they didn’t simply retire to an intermediate position where they could play some moral role; they simply got out. They abandoned the field. They said, “Anything goes”. And to their surprise, of course, most students said, “We don’t like this. We don’t like a climate in which anything goes. We don’t want an overbearing parent, on the one hand; but we’re also not pleased with anarchism, on the other”. And the problems of the seventies and eighties on our campuses really was most administrations took a kind of anarchist, a libertarian view. Laissez fair. Anything the students want is fine. Now, in the 1980’s, as students began dying of alcohol, of drugs, committing suicide, as new renewed racial violence began to occur at the universities, as ideological wars between right and left wing got tougher, administrators began to say, “Wait a minute. We’ve done something wrong. What are we going to do? We have to show the flag. We’ve got to appear again in the role of an authority”. But they know that they couldn’t return to the sixties or fifties. They couldn’t go back to the old way. And they had no new model to turn to. And that’s, I think, when Ed Bloustein said, “What about the role of citizenship? What about the role of empowerment?”

HEFFNER: You know, back in ’64 and ’65, when I went back to the Rutgers campus, I was – please forgive me – a member of that faculty, student, administration committee on in loco parentis. And there were so doggone many silly things that universities had done over the centuries that it was easy to push all the restrictions, it was easy to push many of the restrictions aside, and as you suggest, all of them went by the board. But in that speech of Ed’s, he speaks of disturbance on the campus, and kind of relates it to this anything goes philosophy of the university. The skinheads and the others, do you really feel that there is a relationship between the racial bigotry that is showing itself once again on the campus and the absence of the university in the role of a parent or the role of a supervisor?

BARBER: I really do. There’s just no question in my mind that the democratic virtues – tolerance, a respect for diversity, a willingness to listen to others, a willingness to respect the demands for justice in others – that every one of those virtues is learned. You’re not born with them; you learn them. They’re acquired. They have to be taught. They don’t come naturally. “Lord of the Flies”…there’s a new version playing in the theater today, as William Golding’s way of saying that, strip away civilization, and you find that the civic virtues disappear. We’ve got to teach those virtues. And when the universities of America, when the colleges of America get out of the business of being concerned with civic virtue, with citizenship, with civic responsibility, then to me it’s not in…slightest a surprise that racism, that hostility, that…destructiveness, that a disregard for difference should reappear…our students, in part mirroring their reappearance in the larger…

HEFFNER: Now you are an expert and scholar in the field of that most democratic of all writers, Walt Whitman. I would ask you, in your most optimistic moments, do you think we can turn back not to the bad old days, but that we can turn back to that sense of teaching civic virtue that Ed called for and that you endorse?

BARBER: I believe we can. And I believe we can not just because I’m a kind of pie-in-the-sky utopian, but because we can see around this country an increased demand for…not just from adults, but from students. Students are fed up with living the laissez-faire existence they’ve been, in a sense, compelled to live. They are asking for guidance. They are asking for leadership. They are not asking for authoritarian, despotic parents to step in and pretend we’re back in the 1920s or the 1890s. But they are asking for guidance. They are asking for leadership. And they’re responding to it when it appears. What we found quite remarkable is that after the initial response of our students at Rutgers last year – which was cynicism: “What’s the administration trying to pull now? What’s this latest trick? What are they trying to put over on us now?” – when they began to realize that this was a serious effort to take civic empowerment, student responsibility, the university as a community, to take those ideas seriously, they first became a little less cynical, then they became engaged, and in the end they became our best supporters. And they are now, in fact, no the faculty for not moving quickly enough. They’re saying, “Let’s go. We have this wonderful plan. Why isn’t it going forward?” I think students will always respond to an appeal to the virtuous in them, the potential for virtue that is in them, just as they will also respond to an appeal to the base that is in them. And if we respond to the virtuous in them, I think we will see a powerful, powerful response.

HEFFNER: Rutgers is now a huge state university. How do you think this idea will fly in other universities around the country? What has happened? What is our history (in the few minutes we have remaining)?

BARBER: Well, first of all, there are a number of campus organizations, COOL, Campus Compact, that are a collection of schools that already have a strong emphasis on voluntarism, and are working to develop the voluntary spirit. But I’ve also been in touch with the presidents and with faculties at universities like Baylor and Southwest Texan, Texas; Spellman College in Atlanta, a number of colleges here in New Jersey, where people are interested in looking for an education-based form of community service, looking for an education requirement. To me, the most exciting idea in education that I have seen recently is the idea of education-based community service, possibly as a foundation for a national citizen-service requirement. If you look at the state of our democracy and compare the state of American democracy to what’s happening elsewhere in the world, this country needs a democratic revolution just as badly as Hungary and the Soviet Union have needed a democratic revolution. This could be the spearhead of a democratic revolution here.

HEFFNER: You’ve spoken and written about participation. And Lord knows the figures you offer about student participation and politics are horrendous.

BARBER: Absolutely appalling. The national figure on presidential elections is about 50 percent; 30 percent for congressional elections. If you factor it by age, our 18 to 24-year-olds participate about 12 or 13 percent only. Now, part of that is a result of the fact they can’t vote when they are away from home because our registration laws are absurd and antiquarian. But it’s also the fact that students don’t feel they have much of a stake. They don’t believe much in our democracy. They don’t associate civic responsibility and citizenship with the nation’s government. And until they see those connections, I think, they’re going to become worse and worse voters. And this country cannot afford a future generation that is not citizen.

HEFFNER: Professor Benjamin Barber, thanks so much for joining me today and discussing our friend Ed Bloustein’s basic idea concerning civic virtue. Thanks.

BARBER: Thank you, Dick

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.