Against a Public Service GER

Yesterday’s Stanford Daily carried an editorial calling for Stanford to create a public service GER. They propose letting students fulfill the new GER by taking relevant classes or by completing a service-related internship. To their credit, they aren’t piling on another requirement: they say that it should just be an additional EC (Education for Citizenship) option, on top of the four currently offered, and that students should still only have to take two ECs.

Their arguments are: (1,2) we came to Stanford because we want a broad, liberal education; (3) real-world service experience would complement our academics; (4) students who come up short of 180 class units could use an internship for additional credits, sparing them from having to shell out for an extra quarter’s tuition; (5) it would force the University to “provide greater support to students seeking government or non-profit jobs.” I think arguments #1 and #2 could be applied to any newly proposed GER; arguments #3 and #4 would suggest letting students get credit for any extracurricular or work experience, not just unpaid “service” internships; and argument #5 could be addressed much more easily.

Perhaps there are better arguments for a public service GER. I’m concerned, though, by the elevation of “public service” on this campus above other forms of work. This is bad for two reasons. One, many students can’t afford to work at non-profits and government jobs, whether it’s because they don’t pay well enough or because they need to focus on their own career. It’s wrong to deny respect (or opportunities for units) to less well-off students simply because they must take a well-paying job to support themselves.

The bigger problem with our “public service” frenzy is that it sets up a false dichotomy between “public service” and profit-motivated work. Most of us will contribute far more to the world through our actions taken in pursuit of our own profit than those actions taken in pursuit of the public interest. As long as we act lawfully, our profit-motivated actions will tend to make all of society better off. It all goes back to Adam Smith: “By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”

This is not to say that public service is bad. It isn’t. It’s just not necessarily better than working for profit, and I fear we’d institutionalize that misconception by creating a public service GER.

Editor’s Note: .This piece was originally posted on The Review’s blog Fiat Lux on April 28, 2011. It was posted here.

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