John Klossner

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Klossner: Mandatory volunteering?

I once had a college professor who chose to use his academic position to opine on all things unrelated to our course of study. Fortunately I dig that sort of thing and, 20-plus years later, I still retain two of his diatribes. One was that the best chili dog in upstate New York could be found minutes from campus.

The other was in response to a New York ad campaign for the state's new mandatory seat belt law. Billboards were filling the area featuring the tagline "Seat belts. It's more than a good idea. It's the law." My professor could not, for the life of him, understand why they didn't reverse the logic of that line: "It's more than the law. It's a good idea."

This sentiment comes to mind in light of the discussion on mandatory public service for young American adults. Very few would question that public service is a good idea. There is a need, there is manpower, and anyone who has ever participated in such a program will tell you how wonderful the experience is.

It also allows participants to learn new life skills. For example, last year I met a man who had done a Peace Corps stint on a small island in the South Pacific. He spent 2-plus years there during his early 20's, learning all things coconut: how to climb a palm tree, how to identify the proper coconut for your need ( eating, drinking, or using for parts in a short wave radio) and how to open that coconut with your bare hands. This skill doesn't serve him yet in mid-coast Maine, but give global warming a couple decades, and he'll be able to teach an entire generation of Mainers a new survival skill.

No, the question isn't whether public service for young adults is a good thing -- it's how to bridge the line between mandatory and voluntary. Human nature doesn't allow us to hold the two concepts simultaneously: We are either volunteering or being made to perform; we can't do both. Is there a way to encourage public service? Is there a better ad campaign than "it's the law?" Is this the equivalent of requiring you to floss? To eat your broccoli?

Maybe such an initiative could be made more attractive by tapping into the unique talents that young adults bring to the table. For example, there must be a need for one of the following programs:

- Text message translation.
- Wii skill classes.
- Where to find the best free downloads for the music of Guy Clark,
- explaining the differences between Uma Thurman and Scarlett Johansson.

And, of course, mandatory public service can always be enticed with a sweeter pot. Pay, better pay, college tuition, college credits, college degrees, cheap loans, plots of land in Kansas -- these have all been used in the past as restitution for public service, whether it be military service, physical labor and education in the Third World, or fleeing the East Coast.

Anyways, here's a cartoon.

Posted by John Klossner on Jul 18, 2008 at 12:18 PM


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