On Sunday, February 11, 1968, I stood in newly issued fatigues in formation in a biting wind, with snow flurries, after a southern cold front blew into the Carolina Midlands at Fort Jackson, SC, as the drill sergeant barked, “I need some volunteers”. We all raised our hands, almost as if giving a Hitler salute, so as not to stand out. I didn’t have to “volunteer” that day and was soon back in drafty but warmer barracks. I thought, we have to learn to deal with the “freezin’, fuckin’ cold”. Soon, the skin on my wrists would start to crack.
Now, fast forward.
Many public school systems (and many private schools, like Catholic or other parochial schools) now require community service as a graduation requirement. Is this a good idea?
“Mandatory volunteering” is an oxymoron. But there is practical pressure on a lot of us to give back or to join in, because if “we” don’t, we depend on others who make the sacrifices and take the risks for us.
Actually, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Community service requirements for graduation, as an issue, intersects with or is related to, but still distinct from, some other issues like the military draft (whether it should include women), national service, corporate internships in lieu of regular jobs, and even use of community service in criminal sentences (making “service” non-voluntary). These will all be covered later separately.
The best piece I could find on it was a 2008 New York Times article by Douglas Quenqua, “Good Deeds, the Backlash”. (An earlier similar column from 2003 had curiously been removed by the NYT.) But there are pieces by the School Superintendent Association, college administrators, and “debate.org”. This last site does set up an “opposing viewpoints” forum that I have envisioned doing in the past.
In general, many observers are critical of the obsession by school systems with meeting a “clock hours” requirement, but the same observers believe that some volunteer assignments do provide valuable student learning experiences, perhaps worthy of some academic credit.
I would be inclined to agree with that summary. Think about it. Maryland schools require 75 clock hours. That would be something like 19 Saturdays with four-hour stints for a whole semester. But that’s about the amount of class-equivalent time that it takes to earn about six credit hours in college. Is six credit hours of “service” reasonable, say split between junior and senior years in high school? Probably. But when there is a preoccupation with “The Hours” (like the three-part movie), there’s a tendency for abuse. Companies offer youth tours for “service credits” to the Caribbean or Central America, maybe with little service and some risk to the safety of students.
High schools (and colleges, but we’ll come back to that) should construct assignments where the focus is on skills learning (including people skills), and completing certain projects. It’s easy to imagine projects that teach handiness (or “handyman”, to quote one of my own novel manuscripts) skills and service the community. For example, organic garden work to provide healthful produce for food banks (diabetic clients are helped), or construction of affordable housing (leaning some construction trade or shop skills), or perhaps some environmental cleanup, or sometimes, tutoring in literacy and math programs. In Washington state, representative Steve Berquist says community service inspired a young man become a teacher (and potentially run for office). And, yes, service assignments can give some students experience with regimentation and manual labor, a sense of the world that they will depend on. If that sounds a tad Maoist, so be it. Yet, all of this sounds cynical, apart from love and belonging.
In college, sometimes there a projects, worthy of academic credit, more readily done in the real world outdoors or in corporate computer labs (like in Research Triangle Park) than on campus (UNC or Duke nearby). At Grandfather Mountain, NC, (in a film I staw there) biologists learn rappelling skills because that is the only way to study some altitude-sensitive unusual plants and animals – which could wind up having medicinal value for people. I’ll come back to interning later, but it seems valid when there can be genuine graduation credit given and when there is real learning involved, as well as potential service.
We could see science fair projects as a kind of service, or find ways to fit them in to a service program and give credit. Think about the contribution of Taylor Wilson, and of both Jack and Luke Andraka.
I think you can make a case for the fact that high school graduates should have learned some other community skills: learning to swim, learning CPR, and to some extent rescue skills.
(Published: Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2016 at 10:45 AM)