Service learning should be mandatory

During my career as a high school teacher I advised a community service student group for three years.  We organized food and clothing drives, visited residents of a nursing home, served dinner at a homeless shelter, and painted the inside of a house for Habitat for Humanity among the many activities we undertook.  I’m very proud of the students who committed themselves to the group because there is so much that distracts teenagers.  More importantly, I know our efforts really helped people in need.

Last week I heard a talk radio host discussing a newspaper article regarding how the district I taught in may adopt a policy making service hours a necessary requirement to graduate.  So, I immediately called into the station to voice my support.  As I continued to listen to the program, many other callers rejected the proposal outright.  Oddly, some of them even sounded angry.  They kept saying that such work should only be voluntary.

For as much as people talk about the importance of community here in the United States, it appears that self-interest pervades so much of our everyday lives – so much that “community” often (not always) becomes the distant afterthought.  Now, the one major exception to this is when a major tragedy occurs, whether it be a natural disaster or a human act of violence.  Then people feel compelled to come together.  Otherwise, many spend much of their time solely focused on themselves and their family members.

This doesn’t have to be the case.  We have the power to change social norms to ensure that helping others becomes a much higher priority than it currently is, and what better way than through our public school system.  After all, teaching young people to consider the interests of the less fortunate among us through experiential learning can be an invaluable tool we can utilize to alter normative behavior.  Our communities are interconnected.  Moreover, social problems are ever-present.  While it’s very easy to only think about yourself, it’s impossible to escape the collective.

As an educator, I taught my students the history of our nation as well as the function of our governing institutions (most of which occurred inside a classroom) to make them better citizens.  To me, it’s just as socially redeemable and responsible to teach them the importance of community beyond the walls of the school itself, and service learning makes that possible.  It would mold a number of them into better human beings.

So, when I hear people complain that a total of 40 hours of work spread-out across four years of high school would be an major inconvenience for kids, parents, and administrators, I think they’re further demonstrating the rampant self-interest I find so unsettling.  From where I stand, that’s not something to be proud of.

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