Summer of Service's Practical Idealists
Today's urge to serve has links to '60s, but has differences too
THE secret, unphotogenic mass movement of the 1990s is service. While their agemates are being dismissed as either desperately cautious, terminally cynical, or politically correct, large numbers of young people are unglamorously trying to harness larger ideals to practical ends.
In 1991, the media-savvy Teach for America program was flooded with applicants for its training in two-year school jobs in the inner cities. This spring 55,000 young people across the land applied for the 1,500 places available for training in a "Summer for Service." Refusing to be paralyzed by their generation's negative press clips, these young people are mobilized by other factors besides private anxiety and group embattlement. They may well represent the early stages of a broad-gauged movement, remin ding President Clinton of the word candidate Clinton found himself speaking - equality.
This movement was already building during the Bush years, but the Clinton presidency, with its top-heavy ratio of change rhetoric to status-quo proposals, has raised expectations and is flashing a yellow light for idealism. Almost 1,500 17- to 25-year-olds just completed a week of boot camp on Treasure Island in the middle of San Francisco Bay, which is slowly being vacated by the post-cold-war Navy and was turned over - barracks, mess halls, cold showers, and all - to a pilot project for the president's
national service program.
The training was no walk in the woods. These young people were by no means free of the society they were trying to heal, including its racial animosities. Some blacks insisted, at first, that whites shouldn't have been admitted to the program, and that, once there, they had no business going off to work in African-American communities. There were rages, tears, and some overcoming. The graduates, booted up, are now spending eight weeks tutoring children, testing for lead poisoning, painting buildings, and
trying to do good, mainly around the Bay Area. For their labors, they're earning the minimum wage plus $1,000 that must be applied toward their college education. Eventually, if Congress goes along, the year-long service program will pay a $5,000 subsidy.
Practical is their middle name, which is why they are easily contrasted to the more fiery idealists of the far-gone 1960s. Today's volunteers want to change the world, but dis- or post-illusioned, they want results you can touch. Many identify the bad old '60s with sound and fury but no results - or bad results.
Of course, this black-and-white diagram is seriously distorted. For one thing, it's predicated on a melodramatic tale about those "glorious" days when action for revolution was all rage, when streetfighters stalked the land - Lights! Camera! Cops! Dissolve to Viet Cong flags flapping in the breeze to the soundtrack of "Street Fighting Man"! Collective memory is warped by the cameras. Only a few thousand activists, for example, took part in the storied confrontations at the Democratic Convention in Chicag o in 1968. Marilyn Quayle was quite right to insist, during the 1992 Republican self-immolation in Houston, that not every young American in the '60s was burning a draft card.
Service to the poor was actually integral to the all-around upheaval whose faint memory for young people today is either a goad, burden, drag, or all three. We forget this because the service side, except for the Peace Corps, wasn't so celebrated 25 years ago. There is a clear line from the '60s to some of the service ideals of recent years. Of course there's also a difference. The dominant spirit of the radical side of the '60s was to change the world; the dominant spirit of recent years is to make a di fference. The present-day modesty, the suspicion of high-flying arrogance, is becoming, even if radicals think today's difference-makers fly too low.
WHAT'S frequently overlooked in glib comparisons between the '90s and the '60s - as if we already understood what the '90s are going to be! - is that the spirit of a time isn't given. People are not simply born radical, or cautious. No one woke upon Jan. 1, 1960 and said, "It's time to rip off the gray flannel suits. Let's do the '60s!" Indeed, people fight over what a generation is going to be.
The notion that there is, at any one time, a single spirit that cuts across and overcomes the divergences of class, race, education, region, religion, and politics is a huckster's fantasy. If, however, the new service spirit is to be more than an exercise in condescension, distinctions have to be made. Service may be nobly motivated, but not all service is equally valuable.
A lot of the summer projects will turn out to be cosmetic. The good done by the summer service program will be more than undone by this year's shortfalls in the California budget - the schoolrooms overstuffed, libraries shut, welfare payments cut. Service makes a difference but not enough difference. The economic, ecological, and moral decline of wounded America isn't going to be arrested by summer volunteers. The college subsidy won't come close to making up for a nearly 200 percent increase in student fees exacted by the starved California system during the past two years. Finding shelters where homeless people may get through a bad winter is worth doing, but it is different from building permanent, livable, affordable housing. Training people for job interviews is not the same as creating jobs.
IF every unemployed American were instantly to be trained, retrained, mentored, and instructed in the arts of test-taking and resume-writing, most wouldn't find decent-paying jobs waiting for them. There aren't enough jobs, and cutting the deficit while singing hymns to entrepreneurship isn't going to create them.
In the early 1960s, the conventional wisdom was that the young were a silent generation terrified to take risks. Today, if most of the young seem futureless, directionless, and reconciled to their fates, it's not because they've lain down en masse. Moreover, before we belittle the young who want to reach out and teach someone, it behooves us to ask how well the older folks are doing. Where is that triumphant march to reconstruct the cities that Mario Cuomo trumpeted at the Democratic Convention? Are the elders of the construction trades organizing the mass campaigns for affordable housing, or are they hunkering down protecting existing construction jobs from the entry of new workers?
Before dismissing 20-somethings as a lonely crowd with the attention span of a video jockey and the vision of Madonna, or '60s people as self-serving libertines, let us recall that myopia is not the creation of any generation or class; neither is cynicism.