THE program "Teach for America," initiated by a Princeton student, just celebrated its second anniversary. Among the original recruits who signed up to teach in the inner cities, about half are renewing their commitment, although most of these graduates did not plan to pursue a career in education.
This is not an isolated case of idealism among the young. More young lawyers are reserving a margin of their time for pro bono work. The Peace Corps is experiencing a modest revival. The supposedly out-to-get-theirs younger generation is showing a serious concern about the environment.
If the '80s were the Decade of Greed, the '90s may be the Decade of Need, a time when social injustices are again being recognized and at least partially accepted as the community's responsibility. A sign of change can be read in the popularity of the phrase "public service." Here the record must be compared with the lip service. Congressmen who have chosen not to run for reelection speak about retiring from "public service," as if holding a position of power in Washington were an exercise in altruism. ( This includes the representatives caught overdrawing checks at the House bank.)
Catching the mood, Ross Perot proposed himself as a reluctant candidate, responding humbly to the summons of his fellow citizens to perform "public service" for a troubled country - at the White House level, of course.
Still, if this is a time to be skeptical, it is no time to be cynical. The fervor, then disappointment, of Perot's volunteers measure how deeply Americans long for a common purpose worth giving themselves to. The pronoun "we" is struggling to replace the '80s pronoun "I," improving at least the tone of public discourse.
In his acceptance speech, Gov. Bill Clinton called for a "New Covenant, a solemn commitment between the people and their government, based not simply on what each of us can take, but on what all of us must give to make America work again." And in this election year, politicians have to promise a less polluted earth, more effective schools, and a compassionate response to children living in poverty - some of the very causes the best and the brightest of the younger generation are already devoting themselv es to.
Saints and heroes are always the exception. Americans may not be responding en masse to John F. Kennedy's challenge of three decades ago: "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Yet this appeal from the '60s is being quoted again, proving that idealism lives - "public service" lives. The trick is to distinguish between rhetoric and the real thing.