Liberal Education

Service, Public Work, & Respectful Public Citizens

Public work is a type of service that potentially promotes healthy individual development as well as identities of active citizenship. In this type of service, both volunteers and recipients engage in political action and policy formation. Although public work comprises only some portion of all youth service, it is relevant to contemporary political-economic conditions and important for the civic and mental health of young people. We are at a historical moment of deep economic crises, ill-defined but persistent wars, a continuing flux of immigration, and an atmosphere of distrust of politicians. The future calls for strong leadership, yet recent generations of youth have sent mixed signals about their commitment to sustain our democracy. Public work is not the only antidote to this state of affairs, but it is especially promising insofar as it can promote the kind of informed, committed, and participatory citizenship the nation needs.

Service as public work

Recent scholarship on the civic mission of higher education distinguishes among types of service, while noting the rarity of public work. Colby et al. (2007) cite evidence that most service by college students involves helping others in states of need but is nonpolitical in nature. For example, fraternity brothers are more apt to spend a day serving food at a soup kitchen than to participate in ongoing campaigns for affordable housing or programs for job retraining. Estimates are that of all youth service, perhaps 5 percent involves political policy or action. This is not an indictment of youth, but rather a commentary on the design of service programs that do not seek to mobilize youth politically.

Musick and Wilson cast the distinction more sharply. Whereas most service provides “instruction in volunteering not activism,” public work can lead students to ask why poverty persists or why schooling results in rampant illiteracy. Musick and Wilson fear that emphasis on helping deserving others might mask probing the causes of inequalities. The “damage inflicted by promoting volunteer work as a solution to social problems can be quite severe if it results in the neglect of political solutions” (2008, 520). This leads to speculation that program directors may be inadvertently deterring the kind of student activism that instills participatory habits and fosters civic identity.

Boyte has strongly advocated for service as public work. He also views most service as encouraging acceptance of the world as it is. In distinction, public work would empower people to take action on behalf of their own interests “so that they have the opportunity to find health, happiness, and security through the democratic way of life” (2004, 46). The translation of this charge to college campuses would encourage young people to move beyond offering help by emboldening them to participate in democratic life as political actors. This would counteract the current tendency to cede the solution of social problems to technical experts. The danger of nonparticipation is that “citizenship is purified, stripped of power, interests, and institutional foundations needed for serious civic work” (58).

Boyte contrasts the goal of knowledge for individual economic advancement with the aim of political and moral betterment of society. An obvious referent is the current economic crisis, which emanated in part from an ideology of the unfettered free market of amoral individualistic competition. The main architects of the causative, risky financial instruments were not struggling to rise from impoverished backgrounds, but were graduates of our elite institutions who assiduously applied the theories of their prestigious professors (Lewis 2010; Patterson 2010). These traders and fund managers utilized sophisticated quantitative methods to generate personal wealth, with little interest in producing public goods. All proverbial ships did not rise, but millions sank into unemployment and lost income.

Public work is well within the grasp of contemporary youth. Consider, for example, the cross-campus coalitions to ban the sale of sweatshop-produced clothing in campus bookstores (Danaher and Mark 2003), grassroots youth involvement in the 2008 Obama campaign, or youth who seek educational justice by teaching in disadvantaged schools (Youniss 2009). These and other cases suggest that if some young people can make the leap from doing good to doing public work, many more could do the same if they were given adequate resources.

Mediating institutions

Some universities have the capacity to target social problems and to organize students to address them (Colby et al. 2003), but most do not. Thus, most service occurs off campus at sites that are operated by service-providing organizations. These organizations assist people in need—battered women, say, or disadvantaged youth—or they seek to resolve persistent issues such as environmental conservation or affordable housing (Sirianni 2009). Service sites operate 24/7 and are typically managed by small professional staffs that rely on community volunteers for assistance.

Musick and Wilson (2008) point out that service typically starts in organizations that solicit volunteers from their own or affiliated groups. Many organizations represent longstanding local or national civic traditions. Many are religious and frame service according to theological principles. Others are based in ethnic societies, fraternal clubs, or charitable leagues in America’s rich civil society traditions. Additionally, social movements arise to target specific problems such as locating a waste facility or supporting a local school initiative.

Mediating institutions offer moral and conceptual resources at an opportune moment when young people are developing civic and political identities. This is important in light of young people’s declining membership in civic and political groups (Pew Research Center 2010; Zukin et al. 2006). Historically, volunteer organizations have served as civic classrooms where the fundamentals of democracy are acquired—for example, debating skills and public-speaking abilities (Skocpol 2003). Direct experience of democratic practices has followed a local-to-national structure and allowed interests to coalesce through collective effort.

Youth membership in civic organizations has been in decline for several decades. Today, a minority of young people avow membership, whereas the majority are active in informal social networking (Pew Research Center 2010; Zukin et al. 2006). Aversion to membership applies even to religion; a historic high of 25 percent say they belong to no denomination, although they are personally spiritual (Smith 2009). Public work through civic organizations does not resolve nonmembership, but it does allow youth to experience the ideology of civic democracy and the power of organized collective action.

Understanding society and one’s citizenship

Youth frequently say that service awakened them to the lives of unfamiliar others—illiterate adults, for example, or homeless families. Students learn about others what they had not seriously considered previously (Bickford and Reynolds 2002). Volunteers also gain insights into facets of themselves that hold implications for their futures as they start to think of themselves as blood donors, conservationists, or advocates for affordable housing (Piliavin, Grube, and Callero 2002). Hence, service has the potential to alter self-understanding in relationship to diverse others and to society more broadly.

These findings are germane to Allen’s (2004) analysis of citizenship in contemporary America. Allen points to a basic shift in perspective that was forged by the civil rights era. Previously, it was possible to speak of one America with equality and justice for all. After the 1960s, it became necessary to acknowledge that we are a nation of diverse groups bound by relationships in which benefits accruing to some are coupled with sacrificial costs for others.

An unexamined sense of oneness must now be replaced by striving for wholeness. The new polity recognizes differences among individuals and groups held together by the democratic ideal. For Allen, attainment of wholeness requires the cultivation of political friendships dependent on reciprocal bonds. This is not a friendship of tit-for-tat or intimacy, but a relationship that acknowledges interdependence and the uneven distribution of costs and gains bounded by fair rules. It is proper that youth discover others and come to see potential relationships with them. It is even better when service brings understanding that civic relationships empower both volunteers and recipients because benefits are coordinate with costs in an ever-shifting social ecology.

Newmann (1987) offered a similar insight by coupling recognition of diversity with a sense of justice. He built his analysis on the past four decades of immigration that have changed our ethnic complexion. Newmann proposed that we need a new kind of civic education for this reality because maintenance of trust in our democracy requires a cultivated sense of fairness that recognizes status disparities, yet seeks balance in social relationships. Public work is clearly one way to advance this form of socialization.

Entering the public domain

Youth have adapted quickly to the digital revolution in communication, and unlike older age groups, their preferred social media are digital. People under thirty tend to be more regular users of digital media than those over thirty (e.g., Pew Research Center 2010; Zukin et al. 2006). This is both promising and concerning.

Promise lies in the possibility that the digital world will provide multiple sources of information that are accessible to everyone. Young people can gain immediate access to information and learn to produce it for themselves and others without editors intervening to filter information. Because anyone can receive and also produce information digitally, each person can exchange with others in creating and critiquing ideas (Shirky 2008). The power of social connections is equally promising. Digital media’s potential for raising money, registering voters, and framing issues was glimpsed in the 2004 presidential campaign of Howard Dean. His campaign faded, but young people came alive again digitally in Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. As a result, the youth vote (ages eighteen to twenty-four) reached proportions not seen since the 1970s (CIRCLE 2008).

The concerns, however, are several. First, of all Internet traffic only a miniscule portion involves the acquisition, production, or exchange of political information (Hindman 2009). Second, although the Internet allows access to varied and unfiltered sources, there may be a loss of shared sources across interest or age groups. In the past, younger and older generations consumed and discussed together the same daily newspapers and nightly network news programs (Wattenberg 2008). This is no longer the case. Third, access to information is not the same as exchanging ideas about information (Jacobs, Cook, and Delli Carpini 2009). Whether posting comments is the equivalent of face-to-face discussion is an open question. Fourth, Gladwell (2010) has suggested that the weak ties spawned by the Internet may be weak substitutes for strong relationships required of collective political action.

Jacobs, Cook, and Delli Carpini (2009) describe why the dynamics of public speech are conducive to debate. Public expressions put speakers on the spot to justify and defend utterances, when walking away would be costly to a speaker’s prestige and credibility. A person who wants to be taken seriously needs to respond to challenges that call for reflective responses. Jacobs, Cook, and Delli Carpini also report that members of organizations are more likely than nonmembers to engage in such political exchanges, supporting Skocpol’s (2003) claim regarding membership and democratic skills. In theory, individuals could provide themselves with challenging feedback through calculated self-reflection. However, for deeply held stances regarding, say, abortion or gay marriage, emotions tend to make individuals impervious to self-doubt.

These considerations support Allen’s thesis that political relationships can be clarified through talking and dialogue. While anyone might imagine being in another’s shoes, there is no adequate substitute for direct interaction and dialogue. Doing public work with and for others is one way of learning how to talk to strangers. Public action is open to inspection and criticism. Overt expressions about issues of common concern risk disagreement, while also allowing for modification. Thus, it is important that the Internet not become another private haven where like-thinking people join in echoing one another. If public work can bring young people into the realm of public discourse, it will have advanced citizenship development decidedly.


Encouragement of service as public work is one strategy higher education can use in fulfilling its civic mission to socialize society’s future leaders. The diversity of American higher education includes large land grant state universities, small liberal arts colleges, religiously sponsored institutions, and local community colleges. This array helps explain the many legitimate forms of service that social scientists have observed within and across campuses. But not all types of service are equally likely to promote participatory citizenship and instill lasting civic identities. This article offers a rationale for public work that fits our contemporary economic and political times. The mediating institutions that sustain our civic traditions are in place. Young people’s sense of fairness and justice has not diminished. The question, then, is whether higher education will make the effort to bring the promise of public work to fruition.


Allen, D. S. 2004. Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Bickford, D. M., and N. Reynolds. 2002. “Activism and Service Learning: Reframing Volunteerism as Acts of Dissent.” Pedagogy 2 (2): 229–52.

Boyte, H. C. 2004. Everyday Politics: Reconnecting Citizens and Public Life.Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

CIRCLE (Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement). 2008. “Turnout by Education, Race and Gender and Other 2008 Youth Voting Statistics.” turnout-by-education-race-and-gender-and-other-2008-youth-voting-statistics.

Colby, A., T. Ehrlich, E. Beaumont, and J. Stephens. 2003. Educating Citizens: Preparing America’s Under­graduates for Lives of Moral and Civic Responsibility. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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Gladwell, M.. 2010. “Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.”New Yorker, October 4, 42–49.

Hindman, M.. 2009. The Myth of Digital Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Jacobs, L. R., F. L. Cook, and M. X. Delli Carpini. 2009. Talking Together: Public Deliberation and Political Participation in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lewis, M. 2010. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine. New York: W. W. Norton.

Musick, M. A., and J. Wilson. 2008. Volunteers: A Social Profile. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press.

Newmann, F. M. 1987. “Citizen Education in the United States: A Statement of Needs.” Paper presented at the National Conference on Civic Renewal, Boston.

Patterson, S. 2010. The Quants: How the New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed it. New York: Crown Business.

Pew Research Center. 2010. Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next.Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.

Piliavin, J. A., J. A. Grube, and P. L. Callero. 2002. “Role as a Resource in Public Service.” Journal of Social Issues 58 (3): 469–86.

Skocpol, T. 2003. Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Shirky, C. 2008. Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. New York, NY: Penguin.

Sirianni, C. 2009. Investing in Democracy: Engaging Citizens in Collaborative Governance. Washington, DC: Brookings.

Smith, C. 2009. Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. With Patricia Snell. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wattenberg, M. P. 2008. Is Voting for Young People? New York: Pearson Longman.

Youniss, J. 2009. “Why We Need to Learn More about Civic Youth Engagement.”Social Forces 88 (2): 971–75.

Zukin, C., S. Keeter, M. Andolina, K. Jenkins, and M. X. Delli Carpini. 2006. A New Engagement? Political Participation, Civic Life, and the Changing American Citizen. New York: Oxford University Press.

James Youniss is research professor of psychology at the Catholic University of America.

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