A few years ago I was chatting with a relative that had retired after working for nearly two decades as a secretary at a major university. She explained that her career at the university had been split almost equally between two departments.

During the first half of her tenure, she worked in the school of education for the department of counseling and special education. During the second half, she worked in the college of fine arts for the theater and media arts department.

My relative had enjoyed both jobs, but said that the contrast between the two departments could not have been starker. The differences she described ran throughout the entire culture of each department. They were embodied in everyone — from the professors to the students to the support staff — and in everything — from the architecture to the furniture.

Most of the people in the special education program seemed to focus their entire lives on others. Even people that had no apparent reason to gain from doing so treated a lowly secretary like my relative with genuine personal concern. Such sentiments were ubiquitous throughout departmental interactions.

The majority of people involved in the performing arts, on the other hand, made it abundantly clear in everything they did that they were the central focus. They exemplified the term, “It’s all about ME.” It wasn’t that people weren’t nice when necessary. It’s just that their self centered focus was emphatically and continuously on display throughout the department’s culture.

A few years ago I saw a report on TV about a famous media star that had spent the day doing the kind of ordinary service project in which many of my neighbors and I often participate. This fellow had dressed a bit nicer than we dress for these kinds of projects, but he had actually gotten in and worked with his hands. At the end of the day, he had a look of exultant joy on his face as he said, “This has been a catharsis for me.”

I almost felt sad for this man, because he had apparently waited until his sixth decade of life to discover the happiness that lies in unselfish service to others. It made me wonder how many others live out their lives so wrapped up in satisfying their own desires that they miss out on much greater personal fulfillment than they will ever derive from selfish pursuits.

Giving selfless service is good for us. It makes us happier. Studies show that it makes us healthier. But I have noticed throughout the years that forcing someone to serve rarely brings such benefits. In many cases it creates resentment rather than joy. Occasionally youth that come to a service project begrudgingly will start to get the spirit of it from those around them and will discover an ennobling sensation overcoming their antipathy. But more often they end up being more of a hindrance than a help.

I think that if more people understood the good things that come to them from serving others, they would go out and serve just to gain those benefits. For that reason, I invite others to serve. But I am not in favor of forcing people to “serve.” The ends do not justify the means, nor will compulsory “service” develop the kind of character traits we hope will accrue through giving willing assistance.

School and university programs are increasingly requiring public service. There has been a lot of talk about the government requiring public service from our young people, or of at least offering other benefits to entice them into rendering such service.

I believe that this is a misguided effort. In some cases it amounts to taxation in disguise. In other cases, it is just quid-pro-quo — a job by another name. At any rate, it is unlikely that it can generate either the kind of joy that comes from unselfish service or the kind of culture of selflessness its promoters hope for.

No amount of compulsory public service would turn the self centered students in the performing arts department into the selfless students in the special education department. Well intentioned attempts to force such a result would produce detrimental unintended consequences.
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