Federal bureaucrats and politicians often define common terms in strange ways. "Budget cut" means a funding increase, "tax reform" means raising taxes, and "volunteers" are paid.
To the Bush administration, "freedom" and "service" apparently mean the same thing. This year, the Corporation for National and Community Service started a "Presidential Freedom Scholars" program that offers a $1,000 prize to students who write about their views, not on freedom, but on ... service.
Somebody should tell the Bush administration that service is not the same thing as freedom.
Sure, people should be free to serve who or whatever they want. Our country has a rich tradition of voluntary, charitable service and we should be proud of the many charitable and service organizations that exist in America. People serve their neighbors and community through churches, the Salvation Army, United Way, and other groups too numerous to mention. But that isn't the same thing as freedom.
Freedom allows individuals to pursue happiness in their own individual way, as long as they let others do the same. The purpose of government is to protect our right to that pursuit. The unique thing about America is that it is a place where each individual's aspirations, goals and desires count, and where people are not subservient to a government-imposed grand plan.
The Corporation for National and Community Service, the group that Bush set up to run his new Freedom Corps, also plans to encourage schools to expand "service learning" programs. These are programs where students get credit for community and government service instead of academic classes. One wonders if this is a good move, in view of the fact that U.S. students are struggling behind their international peers in most academic subjects.
In addition to redefining "freedom" as "service," the Bush administration is making plans to boost "civics education" in public schools. That might sound good at first. School children certainly need a better understanding of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and basic American values of freedom and individual liberty. However, when the federal government defines "civics education" it will do so in its own way.
For example, the California-based Center for Civics Education, the group funded by the federal government to promote national standards for civics and government, defines "civic virtue" as requiring "the citizen to place the public or common good above private interest." So it's likely that the type of civics education Bush has in mind will emphasize the value of the common good over that of the individual.
But it wasn't the value of the collective good over the individual that made our country great. What separated our country from others was the fact that it was founded on the principle of freedom for individuals and the protection of "inalienable rights."
To get a glimpse of what federal "civics education" might be like, look at the curriculum standards put out by the CCE. While heavy on teaching politically correct ideas, the standards are light on discussing traditional American values like freedom and individual liberty. For example, the documents mention environmentalism 17 times, multiculturalism 42 times, the First Amendment (freedom of speech and of the press) 81 times, and the Second Amendment (the right to keep and bare arms) not at all. This type of selective emphasis makes the standards extremely suspect.
The CCE states that its curriculum standards are based on Goals 2000, the 1994 federal program for public schools. Goal Three, which deals with civics education, doesn't say anything about students gaining an understanding of the foundational ideas of our country, just that they should demonstrate "good citizenship, community service, and personal responsibility."
Students need more civics education all right, but not the kind the government has in mind. A sound education in "civics" would impart an understanding of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the proper role of government and the nature of freedom. Government service, indoctrination in environmental activism and multiculturalism, and a misplaced emphasis on the "common good" are alarming and dangerous substitutes.
David Salisbury is director of the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute.