What attempts to promote student community service get wrong

The debate is heated: should students be required to do a certain number of community service hours for school? Elizabeth Meade would say the answer is no--but likely not for the reasons you may think.

Elizabeth Meade
1st April 2021
Image: Friends Central School on Flickr
Undoubtedly, many a parent and student will protest against community service hours each academic year. The common argument is that students should not be required to serve their communities at all. 'Mandatory volunteering' is, after all, an oxymoron, and many believe that volunteering loses its meaning if it's not a choice. Many adults do not want their children to have to work outside of school on oft-menial tasks. To require that students do community service, they say, is to force them to do things for others against their will.

As a vocal critic of student community service programs, few of these arguments hit the mark. For one, few schools genuinely disguise community service as 'volunteering'--the mandatory nature of the hours is clear. It's called 'service,' not 'volunteering,' for a reason, just like 'military service' and 'court-mandated community service'. The larger problem, however, is the idea that community service is a 'learning experience' that students 'complete' to learn some small lesson about morality. In reality, serving one's community is an ongoing duty and a crucial part of any healthy society.

Community service 'hours' frame community service as a short-term event that students do for academic credit. They also frame the mandatory products and services that community organizations provide as optional bonuses that we choose to provide because we're such nice people. In the current climate, animal shelters, soup kitchens and health organizations are key resources--not a special treat--for the populations they serve. Mature people provide food for others and take care of the environment not out of the 'goodness of our hearts' or to receive praise. We do so because it's simply necessary for us to survive as humans living in a culture. More importantly, the people who use these services are our comrades and neighbors. They are not a 'learning experience' to teach students to care for people other than themselves in between school and sports practice.

Community service hours send the message that service is something to quickly complete and quantify.

What's more, community service hours send the message that service is something to quickly complete and quantify. They don't instill an ongoing sense of social responsibility or teach students to live life with underlying moral values beyond tokenistic participation. At best, students learn valuable skills to help others that they continue into adulthood or post-university life. At worst, they treat others like objects or animals to prop up their newfound morally-superior image. The number of naive young people who believe that their participation in 'service trips' or fundraisers absolves them of further responsibility is astounding. These same young people often think nothing of going into exploitative marketing careers or resisting major social change in their own communities.

Too many school 'community projects' have little life beyond a short, generally performative initiative that lasts less than a year.

There are plenty of other ways to instill compassion in students of all ages. Ethics and social issues should be discussed amid other subject matter in schools. For instance, science curricula should feature environmental issues and health curricula should feature emotional health. Community participation should also be normalized as part of daily life within a culture. Schools should lead ongoing projects that have genuine utility and a lasting impact, alongside educational value. Too many school 'community projects' have little life beyond a short, generally performative initiative that lasts less than a year. Integration of community service as something that one performs to their own ability because it is moral greatly outshines brief collections or fundraisers.

Parents also shouldn't assume that participating in short-term community service will instill values in their children. If families don't emphasize moral values of justice and open-mindedness, how will young children learn them? If community service is presented as just another school assignment, how will teens and young adults find genuine value in it? Serious societal matters shouldn't be off the table for family conversation and genuine communal engagement among families should be normalized.

University students should be encouraged to choose careers that are beneficial and fulfilling, not those that make the most money.

University students should be encouraged to choose careers that are beneficial and fulfilling, not those that make the most money. Students can't be blamed for wanting to afford necessities and support their families. However, affluent students tend to choose careers with the goal of earning enough money to replicate the lifestyle they have grown up with. They rarely pursue an active, meaningful role in the community. Hence, students with the most financial power and opportunity often choose corporate careers such as investment banking. These careers do not produce anything artistic, scientific or service-oriented that builds culture or connection, despite their proponents' social, economic and political power.

It's time that education put interpersonal engagement at the forefront of students' lives--but mandating vague 'community service' hours of questionable positive impact doesn't work.

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AUTHOR: Elizabeth Meade
Science sub-ed and Chemistry major. Avid reader. Chaos theorist. Amateur batrachologist and historian. Rock fan. Likes cybersecurity and cooking.

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