What We Don’t Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Service∗ Adam Davis There is this odd thing happening: a vogue for service. Look around and you can’t help but see it: more community service, more service learning, more compulsory volunteering. Elementary schools, high schools, and colleges across the country have adopted community service programs quickly, seamlessly, and with relatively little opposition or argument. Students are no longer simply concerned with their classes or even with their clubs—now they are collecting clothes, ladling out meals, wrapping gifts, building houses, tutoring younger kids, chatting with elders, and serving the community in numerous other ways as well. And the trend goes far beyond students: young people in record numbers are applying to City Year, Teach for America, and other AmeriCorps organizations; retirees are volunteering with various service organizations; and professionals, too, at and away from work, are engaging in community service. This trend toward service, unlike many trends, is generally praised, though often in imprecise terms. Service Is Good (SIG), we seem to assume—good for those of us doing the serving, good for those of us being served, good for everyone. It has become so clear that Service Is Good (SIG) that we can demand service activity— even “voluntary” service activity—as we require classes in math, science, and the humanities. We can demand it after school or work and on weekends. We can demand it from our brightest young people, our busiest professionals, and our most experienced elders. It seems to be so clear that Service Is Good (SIG) that we do not need to question service or to talk about it; we only need to do it. It even seems that talking about service might be a problem—first, because if you’re talking about service, you might not be doing service, and second, because if you’re talking about service, you might start to wonder about its goodness. But neither possibility, I believe, is something to fear. We ought to wonder about service, and we ought to talk about service with those we’re serving with and perhaps also with those we’re serving. It may (or even must) be worthwhile to call the goodness of service into question, and with that, to ask why we so rarely ask questions about service. For the length of this piece, then, I want to call into question the assumption or conclusion that Service Is Good (SIG). I want to look briefly at what we mean by service and what we mean by goodness and also at activities we engage in but refrain from discussing. And then I want to suggest that talk, not in place of but in addition to service, might also be good.
from the The Civically Engaged Reader, ed. A. Davis and E. Lynn, Great Books Foundation, 2006.
Service The kind of service at issue here is community service, that is, “voluntary” service, which usually implies service to those in need. Neither the waiter (who serves those with means) nor the criminal (who may serve those in need but doesn’t exactly choose to do so) is engaging in precisely the kind of service activity I’m talking about. What separates our form of service from other forms of service is above all its voluntary character, which is revealed or confirmed by the fact that service work is nonremunerative, or barely remunerative. People either don’t get paid or get paid badly to do this kind of service work, but that’s okay; it’s not, we’re told, about the money. AmeriCorps volunteers, for example, receive a stipend and some help with tuition, but in general that’s not why, really why, they’re doing it. We don’t do service to make money but because service is good in and of itself. To put it another way, community service isn’t service work; even if checks are cut and hours are counted, community service somehow exists outside the realm of wages and timecards. On its own terms, for reasons internal to the activity itself, Service (S), we say, Is Good (IG). If we don’t serve for money,...