Community service, three-star style.

In his 2002 State of the Union message, in case you’ve forgotten, President Bush prescribed 4,000 hours of community service for each of us over our lifetimes. Over the past few months, I’ve been wondering whether hounding a high-school student to focus on getting his 60-hour requirement out of the way might count toward my quota. After all, I’ve tirelessly nagged my son to get busy lining up a local endeavor when I could be taking the easy way out as summer approaches. I could write a $3,000-plus check to send him on, say, a Costa Rican community service program run by the nonprofit organization Global Routes. He’d get to white-water raft through a tropical rain forest with his fellow teens while also learning to “push past stereotypes and misconceptions to build strong relationships and self-understanding, as well as buildings.” He’d come home bronzed and credentialed to boot.

Such an adventure isn’t exactly what William James had in mind when he urged, in a famous speech, that “gilded youth” be sent off to “fishing fleets in December … to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.” A century after James advocated national service as “The Moral Equivalent of War,” community service has become a national and pedagogical priority. Efforts to galvanize a self-absorbed generation have spawned not just “service-learning” programs and requirements in schools, but, for those who can afford it, a surge in summer teen programs that blend volunteerism with exotic travel. “Servi-tourism,” you might call a phenomenon that has become part of ever more elaborate precollege prep—important for résumé enhancement, even when it isn’t an actual graduation requirement.

Global Routes is the gold standard. Back in 1986, the newly founded organization was a trailblazer in the field of high-school community service/adventure, launching a program that took 19 kids to Kenya to do some hand-blistering work before sallying forth on a safari. It was a step beyond the wilderness trips that had sprung up in the mid-’80s for middle-schoolers tired of the traditional summer camp experience—and a step ahead of the volunteerism vogue. It wasn’t until 1993 that Congress passed the legislation that helped spur the altruism trend, the National and Community Service Trust Act, the same year that Maryland became the first state to make community service a high-school requirement.

By 1999, the percentage of public high schools sponsoring some kind of community service had risen to 83 percent, triple what it had been 15 years earlier. In 2000, Global Routes airdropped almost 300 kids into a dozen countries for a hybrid experience of working in needy locales and then playing in spectacular settings. Meanwhile, more than 50 organizations—both commercial and nonprofit—have carved out niches in a market that briefly took a dive due to post-9/11 jitters and SARS fears but seems to have bounced back this year.

It’s easy to mock the transformation of beneficence into trendy business and hard to resist noting that parents would be doing more for charity if they just sent the big checks abroad, rather than jetting their children to India to help leper families (so far the most exotic mission I’ve heard about). But it’s precisely because the oxymoronic notion of de rigueur volunteerism stirs up debate that I’ve come to appreciate the virtues of the community service requirement. “Civic learning” that neglects to confront kids with the mixed motivations and tensions inherent in personal “service” wouldn’t be worth wasting students’ time on.

And there is no dearth of debate. The Ayn Rand Institute, predictably, is quick to denounce the community service craze as creeping state-enforced servitude. Lately, disagreements have heated up between conservatives and liberals about whether school-sponsored programs should, or shouldn’t, promote political advocacy. (A recent study  from the Carnegie Corporation and the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement notes with concern that even as youthful volunteerism rises, voting rates and citizen activism continue to drop; could it be that selfless gratification siphons off energy for public mobilization?)

But the even trickier issue highlighted by servi-tourism is moral hypocrisy: Is there something wrong with the doing-well-by-doing-good attitude? Let’s face it: If community service hadn’t become a valued credential in the higher-ed hustle, there would surely be less of it happening. What would be truly phony would be to pretend that youthful community service is all about altruistic, spontaneous betterment of others when in fact individual growth has always been a central goal of its proponents. As service advocates from John Dewey on up emphasize, the “reflective” component of such activities is crucial.

Global Routes, at least, “makes no bones,” as one of its directors told me, about stressing to clients and host countries alike that its primary purpose is “experiential learning” for North-American adolescents. Naturally, the hope is their hosts will benefit, too—from a new community center, say—but the focus is on the kids’ “personal development.” That’s where the staff’s real expertise lies, not in international development, and anyway, what dent can you make in global poverty in a two-week stint of amateur construction work? As Dewey said in endorsing communal, occupational activities for kids, the “aim is not the economic value of the products, but the development of social power and insight.”

The question is, of course, what kind of social power and insight. Those on the right have been known to worry that sending dewy-eyed do-gooders to underdeveloped places is a recipe for inculcating un-American character traits: glib one-worldist sympathies and socialist tendencies. Leftist critics denounce this brand of elitist beneficence as the crucible of noblesse oblige: privileged youths dabbling in distant problems when they could be tackling hardships closer to home. What gives me pause about the servi-tourism approach, though, is the whole idea of an engineered conversion experience—the promise, as Global Routes puts it, to transport kids out of “their comfort zone” and into a new “cross-cultural understanding” with the perfect prepackaged blend of eye-opening and soul-expanding challenges, first in rustic villages and then amid awesome vistas.

That sounds awfully, well, comfortable. To judge by the Web site testimonials (mostly from parents) about the expertly choreographed cultural adventures, kids may well be missing out on the true—and less than gloriously transformational—growth opportunity that community service has to offer America’s micromanaged youth elite: an occasion to be a lowly cog and have to cope with real-world glitches. James prescribed a dose of “toil and pain and hardness and inferiority” for America’s gilded youth, whom he judged in need of discovering what it’s like to “have no vacation.” I’d settle for making our overscheduled kids bungle their own way to some project and then navigate the bumps and boredom. I wouldn’t even begrudge them some rapids to shoot (under the supervision of high-priced guides) if I thought they’d get an unmediated glimpse of how difficult some social chasms can be to cross.

Colleges evidently wouldn’t mind less glitz and more grit, either, it was a relief to learn at a recent school meeting for parents of next year’s juniors. According to the principal, one admissions person at a prestigious college confessed that as essay after essay about service and soul-searching in Costa Rica arrived in the office, the committee members sighed and tossed them aside.