Beyond Service

At our new president’s behest, we have become a “service nation.” At least this appears to be the case from the effusive selflessness that has filled campus bulletin boards and open lists since the dawn of the new liberal epoch. With a shocking suddenness, the undergraduate gaze has swung from Manhattan penthouses to Mississippi shantytowns. City Year is now a more desirable employer than Citigroup. The increasingly social spirit of our generation is undoubtedly a good thing. But it is not nearly good enough.

Our newfound humanitarianism comes at a time when the deleterious effects of inequality and the destructive consequences of greed are coming into arrestingly sharp resolution. Economic and political configurations which seemed unshakable just a year ago have been laid low by the cumulative efforts of a class of well-educated buffoons. We could easily have been those buffoons had we been born just a few years earlier. Only recently have their mistakes become unmistakable.

Luckily for us, the social fashions shifted just in time. The grandees of the selfish class have been vilified and discredited. So, as selfishness collapses as a viable expression of young ambition, service has stepped in as a replacement. This is by no means a bad thing: the efforts of even a few service-minded young people will go a long way in repairing the acidic mistrust that has corroded the commonwealth.

Citizenship and service, however, are not coextensive. Service is an activity fraught with asymmetrical power relationships. As Harvard students, we can go paint community centers and tutor poor students and lobby for worker’s rights because we have the luxury of time and stability and because we are prodded along by the tickling guilt of our own comfort. This is not to undercut the work of the many students who participate in service, almost all with genuinely good motivations. Rather, it is to point out that we serve because we can, and we can because we are the beneficiaries of the same social lopsidedness which demands the service in the first place.

Service is also hardly equivalent to genuine human decency—and it’s a lot easier. I much prefer the humane banker to the manipulative social worker. I have seen one student group whose members were so busy planning their high-minded service events that they left their own bridge housing rooms filthy for nameless custodians to tidy up. Maybe they were in a rush to go petition University Hall to offer custodians higher working wages. I bet those custodians wished that the students had just thrown away their trash instead.

Real humanity takes place in the practice of everyday life, in the fine textures of workaday relationships. It is awfully difficult. Service can’t be used to balance off an imagined moral ledger sheet or to cancel out privileges we feel bad about. Instead, we should try to avoid accumulating too much vulgar privilege in the first place—a quantity that isn’t measured in crude indexes like money or education or employment, but in the degree to which our social behavior trends either toward humility or toward hierarchism.

Indeed, one of the most perverse consequences of an obsession with service is the wedge it drives between the servers and the served. In one particularly obtuse plan, the Obama administration intends to ensure that at least a quarter of federal work-study funds will support public service programs, “instead of jobs in dining halls and libraries.” That way, low-paid immigrants can take the dining-hall jobs from which the enlightened students have been liberated, and then the students can be paid to write policy papers and hold up posters in solidarity.

We need to get beyond service, not reject it. We need to embrace our commonality in a way that affirms our shared duties as participants in a democratic society, not in a society shorn between the helpful and the helpless. Ralph Waldo Emerson, speaking of the Young American, admitted that every society would have its group of talented and ambitious young people. He insisted, however, that their role was “not to drink wine and ride in a fine coach,” but rather to “adorn life for the multitude by forethought … by the remembrance of his humble old friend, by making his life secretly beautiful.”

I voted for this administration, and I believe in its vitality, its idealism, and its ambitions. I genuinely hope that its successes will be written into the history of our generation. But I hope that that will be a tale played out in the language of our common relationships, asserting the dignity and nobility of every member of society. Service is an urge which ought to hope for its own irrelevance, for if a truly equal society ever comes about, service will become happily obsolescent. We must thus act in the service of an equalitarian society, rather than in the service of an aristocratic charity to a pitied underclass.

Garrett G.D. Nelson ’09, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies and visual and environmental studies concentrator in Cabot House.