An Antidote to Yuppiedom?


THERE IS SOMETHING wonderful about the new burst of volunteerism described in recent Crimson articles, but there is also something typically Harvardian about the whole phenomenon.

Although it is likely that much good will come out of the new Public Service Fund and similar projects at other schools designed to increase student volunteerism, there are nevertheless troublesome aspects which must be addressed.

The articles have presented collegiate efforts to promote community service as an effective statement against "Reaganite self-interest". The caption running under President Bok's picture announced that he was "waging war against yuppiedom," and Vice President for Government and Community Affairs John Shattuck was quoted as believing that the program could help contest "the perception among the public at large that students are selfish and that yuppies are taking over the world."

These are noble sentiments, but the taint of yuppiedom does stain initiatives like Harvard's fund or the Brown consortium described in one article. Suddenly a group of extraordinarily wealthy institutions announces that public service is once again a priority and in good yuppie style they proceed to set up computer banks, hire a professional staff and allocate a large budget.

It must come as a surprise to those who have always been involved in community service that computers and an enormous endowment are required. But what is most disquieting about the official reintroduction of public service into Harvard's agenda of priorities is that it has been orchestrated from above.


Though there has been evidence in recent years of renewed student interest in community service, the administration decided to take matters into its own hands rather than waiting for student initiative to build momentum. There are some good reasons for such an approach. A Harvard fund can provide a continued and stable structure as well as a magnitude of resources which students, who are often not around long enough to establish lasting organizations, can use as they choose. The fund will also have access to more money than most student groups have ever dreamed of.

All this is well and good, but the publicity surrounding the new endowment has ignored the fact that a similar and highly successful program already exists, albeit under the aegis of Radcliffe. Education for Action, a student-run Radcliffe department, has been supporting progressive student projects in the community for 20 years. Initially part of a pre-Peace Corps training program, it has funded some 390 other projects involving more than 600 students. Education for Action combines the merits of a student-run group with the benefits of a sizable endowment and the wisdom and experience accrued over two decades. In addition, its library and periodical collection functions as a clearinghouse and resource center for students and campus groups.

Redundancy, however, is not the only troubling characteristic of the new public service fund. By virtue of its affiliation with the University, it will probably have to be an apolitical project, geared towards the symptoms of social ills rather than addressing the structures which cause them. This sort of palliative approach to serious fundamental problems in our society will allow Harvard students to do good for four hours a week and then go back to contributing to the very social order which allows the elderly to sit alone in unheated apartments and permits children to grow up in ghetto housing projects in the first place.

Spending an afternoon with an underprivileged child, tutoring or just caring is a vitally important and wonderful deed--not to be belittled. But it is not enough. Community service programs must also ask why the ghetto is there, why the elderly are alone and why many poor women need shelter and additional special help. A commitment to social change must accompany any serious commitment to do social good.

IT IS ALSO NOT clear that shifting the responsibility for social service from the government to students or other private individuals, even via government-funded work-study programs, is a good idea. Ideally we would all do our fair share and public tax dollars, representing the hours a person has worked, should be no different from the hours a citizen would give by direct involvement. In fact, the latter can encourage a sense of community belonging as well as prove more emotionally satisfying than writing checks to the IRS.

But should this second alternative falter in times of economic duress, or merely because it has fallen out of fashion, a conservative government could say that social service is the public's responsibility and that clearly the electorate has lost interest. One of the functions of a government is to draw on that part of us which identifies with society as a whole. In our fiercely individualistic culture we do not need a government which encourages us to alienate ourselves from the rest of the country.

Last, we can foresee a final danger for the new public service fund. On the surface it appears an ideal antidote to the selfish image of yuppiedom; but what is there to stop the eager Morgan Stanley recruit from padding his or her resume with public service activities, now that these seem have been deemed de rigueur? Granted, anyone with half a heart would do some good along the way--once again not something to be belittled--but such a situation would hardly be ideal. Far better, perhaps, is the approach taken by Vanderbilt University, which instituted a public service requirement. Furthermore, the program there relies on student initiative, with a skeleton staff providing guidance rather than impetus.

IN THE END, it is up to students to determine what will become of the fund and what ends it will serve. We should take advantage of the money and the expertise but also remember that it takes more than the wave of an administration's wand to accomplish effective social change.

Perhaps the fund can be seen as a first step, a catalyst for debate about what public service should be, who should do it and how. The issue of a service requirement might seriously be considered. But it is even more important that we not allow our consciences to be lulled by a million-dollar fund and a couple of computers.

Public service is not the answer to yuppiedom, Reagan or modern angst and alienation. Nor is it enough to go out and do good deeds without thought to the larger issues at hand. But then again, it is never enough.