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Today's All-Purpose Fixers of Society's Ills--College Students

March 09, 1997|Ruben Navarrette Jr. | Ruben Navarrette Jr. is an author, lecturer and senior fellow of the Washington-based organization, One Nation Indivisible

American college students seem to have become the country's newest source of readily available, cheap labor. Need your city rebuilt, your soup kitchens staffed, your clinics tended, your police force aided or your children taught to read? There is a first-year chemistry student at UCLA, or a political-science major at USC, who is ripe for the taking.

From Washington to Los Angeles, politicians, at all levels, have seized upon the notion of enlisting corps of young "volunteers" to perform morally redeeming "community service."

President Bill Clinton touts his idea to draft, as part of his $2.7-billion "America Reads" initiative, an army of 1 million college-aged "literacy tutors" who will help teach elementary-school students to read by the third grade. The students will be paid from federal "work-study" funds, which allow them to perform on- and off-campus jobs at an hourly rate higher than the minimum wage. Despite the program's cool reception with some teachers' unions, the president's recent references to his hoped-for literacy army belies an enthusiasm unmatched since he proposed the $7.4-billion Americorps.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, mayoral candidate Tom Hayden has proposed, for students attending college in Southern California, still more public service. The state senator envisions a "campus community service corps," in which college students would leave campus, roll up their sleeves and work for the improvement of inner-city neighborhoods and schools.

What is most significant about this apparent craze for hiring college students as society's clean-up and fix-it crew is not the cost of the programs themselves nor the worthiness of the individual goals. Neither is it government becoming an inculcator of civic virtue nor the danger of allowing government to absolve the responsibilities of some citizens by shifting them to others, as with college students who teach third-graders to read so that the children's parents don't have to find the time to do so.

Instead, the real significance of these various initiatives lies in their aggressive use of one generation of Americans to instill values in another. The second-grader in Houston learns to read, but, in the process, the literacy tutor, a college student from Rice University, learns the value of serving humanity. The city of Los Angeles is saved, but, in the process, so is the young savior, who learns the virtue of altruism and service to others.

Baby boomers like Clinton and Hayden have become zealous missionaries of saving Gen X'ers from themselves. A generation who moved from the campus protests of the 1960s into the corporate boardrooms of the 1980s has reached middle age and has begun to ponder its legacy. It has resolved, a bit late, that the moral character of its children should be its final mark on the world. So, these public-service initiatives, at whatever level of government, afford baby boomers one final opportunity to not just clean streets or teach children but, more important, to set another generation on the straight and narrow, to teach them the value of public service, and, in turn, to safeguard the boomer legacy.

This political win-win, in which cities are polished while souls are saved, would be just about perfect if not for one small problem. Even if two generations can agree on work to be done, it does not follow that they will do it for the same reasons. Boomers, not content to merely assign chores, want to somehow transfer to their children a specific motivation for doing them. And that is impossible.

If young people have shown anything in recent years, it is their resilience to their elders' pushing them into "worthy" activities. An example is my generation's relative--and unfortunate--uninterest in politics and government. Despite full-court pressure to the contrary and quadrennial "Rock the Vote" campaigns, young people, aged 18 to 30, largely remain disconnected from public discourse, distrust politicians more than most, resist the notion that government is the solution to societal ills and vote in the lowest numbers of any age group.

On the other hand, young people are not anti-public service. Far from it. Gen X'ers have, for a decade now, volunteered to do everything from staffing legal-aid offices and AIDS clinics to removing graffiti and visiting with the elderly in rest homes. Most of this work has been done in their own communities, where its results are readily evident, and in those specific areas where the volunteers believe their efforts will do the most good, which does not usually include, by the way, volunteering in political campaigns. Consider also young people having rediscovered the American Red Cross in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing and the sustained popularity of the teaching corps, Teach for America.

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