WASHINGTON — Washington. -- A hornet's nest of opposition erupted thi summer when the Maryland Board of Education voted to require students to put in 75 hours of community service as a condition of high school graduation.
Atlanta, Detroit and Washington have similar requirements, as do many private schools. But this was the first time a state ever voted one. Maryland's teacher unions and school district bureaucracies complained instantly. The plan, they argued, will be too difficult to administer (translation: Don't work us any harder).
Another objection had a funny philosophic twist: It would be too onerous, it was said, to require students to spend time tutoring younger children, working in homeless shelters, soup kitchens or parks projects and then ask them to evaluate their experience.
''Involuntary servitude,'' charged one critic. ''True Service Can't be Coerced,'' objected the New York Times. Service should be ''voluntary, not mandatory,'' complained the Washington Post, agonizing that the requirement ''may be more than some hard-pressed working students can or should be expected to bear.''
Why a little over 10 hours a year serving and learning in their own communities should harm young people -- Maryland's 75-hour requirement can be spread from 6th to 12th grades -- is hard to grasp. We require the least school days of any advanced nation, arguably one reason we lag in comparative international testing. The average American teen-ager probably spends 10 hours a year watching television beer commercials alone.
The critics of Maryland's experiment are reminiscent of the stereotypical limousine liberal, out of touch with human nature, unaware of what an education is all about.
Kids need a challenge, something to stretch their capacities and sensibilities. Sports coaches and military leaders get results by setting tough goals, not coddling. School itself is a mandatory activity. If community service programs are voluntary, they'll only tap the self-starters.
For five years, notes State Board of Education president Robert Embry, Maryland has offered a community service elective under a nationally recognized program. But still, only 1 percent of students have signed up.
''Today's young people are not overworked,'' insists Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. ''More often, they are adrift and disengaged. Many feel unneeded at the very time they are trying to discover who they are and where they fit.''
What better, then, than a community service program that puts young people in touch with the problems of their society -- the environment, poverty, health care -- and with grown-ups who spend their lives working on those problems?
Without a solid service-learning experience, argues Catherine Milton, chairman of the Commission on National and Community Service, young people are likely to emerge from school ''having learned they are a problem, not a resource for solving problems.''
There's also evidence that community service has solid educational benefit. Dan Conrad and Diane Hedin, surveying research in the field for the Phi Delta Kappan magazine, report students engaged in service have ''a heightened sense of personal and social responsibility, more positive attitudes toward adults and others, enhanced self-esteem, growth in moral and ego development, and more complex patterns of thought.''
They also report that once people are involved with community service programs, either as students, teachers, supervisors or parents, they're likely to become enthusiasts for the whole idea.
Maybe the state education boards in Maryland and other states should think of bypassing the tired school bureaucracies and ask the students to plan community service programs within their own schools.
Homer Schamp, a leading Maryland education authority, suggested the idea to me. It seems to make stunning sense.
Two students in each class, grades 6 to 12, could be selected by their fellow classmates to develop community-service programs. The state education board, which so far is sticking to its guns on the service requirement, could develop a list of groups the students might consult.
Examples: local police, library and recreation departments, the Red Cross, local hospitals, social service agencies working with children, the homeless and aged, volunteer organizations including the Rotary and Lions.
Already kids would be out in the community, assessing needs and service opportunities themselves. They would get their classes to vote on the most promising activities and set up an accounting system for service hours completed (a good computer training project in itself).
They might invite an interested teacher to sit in with the student committee to receive and evaluate students' community-service essays and certify when the kids have fulfilled their 75-hour requirement for graduation.
Student democracy too often boils down to planning a dance or a Halloween party. This would be a way to give student decision-making a new vibrancy as students learn to make consequential decisions for themselves and their communities.
Instead of an onerous requirement with professional educators playing compliance cops, community service could become a challenging opportunity. For many young people, it might also prove an opening door to the fuller life around them -- and a lifetime of service.
Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.