Throughout my entire duration of participating in the Peace Corps in Panama, from the application to my upcoming closing of service in my host country, there has been one, seemingly perpetual question: Why?
Not only do sensible minded U.S. citizens ponder why anyone would leave the most powerful and free country in the world to live in the jungle for two years, but the host country nationals and community members find it perplexing as well. Since I started my service in Panama in 2010, I have been asked why I decided to do this, and before I can even answer, I usually get asked the followup question, “Is this a requirement?”
I now realize that any answer but a flat “NO” hinders the success I can have in my community.
What are the positives that could result from required service? In terms of the intangible, service often exposes societal problems to people who otherwise would not have known about them. The growth in social consciousness can then lead to a greater interest in serving. Both Peace Corps and Teach for America have claimed that one of the results of their programs is to spread awareness of the complexities of development in their respective fields.
Another obvious result of required service would be a significant increase in the number of people serving. As with any organization looking to affect positive change, the number of bodies in the field matters greatly. In the early years of the Peace Corps, there were hopes that eventually the number of volunteers in the field would eclipse 100,000. Unfortunately, the peak number was just above 15,000, and this occurred just six years after the organization’s founding in 1961. There is no doubt that the number of volunteers in the field would have been accomplished had service been and remained a requirement for college age young adults.
However, it is a mistake to value quantity over quality when referring to any type of service that qualifies as human development. The term “human development” is most easily explained through the old adage, “If you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, but if you teach a man how to fish you feed him for a lifetime.” In human development, the goal is to accomplish the latter, and frankly, it is both much more rewarding and at the same time difficult to achieve.
While there are many complexities to human development, things that can at any point jeopardize any tangible result one may wish to see at the work’s end, there is nothing more important than the element of want. The teacher and the student must want to be there in the first place. This is the most critical aspect of development. The teacher must want to teach, and the student must want to learn. Without this integral foundation, there can be little hope of feeding anyone for a lifetime.
By making service a requirement, we take away the essential and inherent desire to help people; that desire which is innately rooted in the meaning of the word “volunteer.”
Weigh in: Do you think America should make national service (military, civilian, community, etc.) mandatory? Does mandatory service put too much emphasis on quantity over quality?