Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Building Civic Engagement

Education in this country is failing and it's not because we are falling behind China or India in math and science

A colleague of mine recently asserted that there should be a mandatory service requirement for young people in the United States. She said that before the age of 23, all capable young people should perform a mandatory year of service through a program such as Peace Corps, Americorps, City Year, etc., in order to build a more socially conscious, service-oriented, and civically engaged citizenry.

After my typical visceral reaction based on fear of government encroachment, inefficiency, and incompetence, I decided that this was an idea worth thinking about.

The intentions and goals behind the idea of mandatory service are solid. There is a dearth of civic engagement and volunteerism in our society. One study found that in 2007 about 74% of the adult population spent zero time volunteering. While increased volunteering is not a silver bullet to the social problems in our country, it is difficult to ignore this widespread complacency toward serving others.

While the intentions and goals of mandatory service are reasonable enough, I struggle with whether a mandate is the right strategy for building civic engagement. Often, people interested in social and environmental justice latch on to government mandates as a way of changing public behaviors and attitudes. In reality, there are four major social control mechanisms that governments use to affect public behavior:

1) Physical coercion: Police power (imprisonment if fail to abide by law)

2) Negative reinforcement: “Sin taxes” (i.e. SUV, alcohol, and cigarette taxes)

3) Positive reinforcement: Providing tax-breaks (i.e. for married couples, charitable giving)

4) What Joseph Nye calls soft power: Getting people to want what you want

As you may be able to tell from my prior post, I do believe that incentives matter and that both positive and negative reinforcement are, generally speaking, legitimate options. However, service to others is an expression of our common humanity, it’s a recognition of the crap shoot that decides who has and who needs, it is supposed to be selfless and independent of government punishment or tax-breaks. Positively or negatively incentivizing service is somewhat of an internal contradiction. Assuming we all agree that physical coercion is not an option, we are left with the fourth option listed above; getting the American public to civically engage themselves, to want to be actively serving those in need in their communities.

In order to build civic engagement in this fourth way, we need to think differently about how we are developing young people. We consistently obsess over how we are falling behind China in math and science, but why aren’t we also talking about our failure to cultivate an ethic of compassion, empathy, and service in young people? I grew up in a supposedly top-notch public school system in the Western suburbs of Chicago and not once did I have an opportunity to serve people in need through any of my classes. Never did I engage in service-learning nor was I significantly exposed to other peoples’ reality. Human rights, social justice, and an ethic of service are only tacitly (and mostly dispassionately) dealt with through videos and worksheets about the civil rights movement.

Building a society that is centered on “equal dignity and mutual loyalty” depends on a shift in norms, which requires a shift in the way we learn to engage in our world and therefore a deeper incorporation of social action into our education.


Adam said...

It's interesting, Dave, how popular of a subject human rights has become within academia, and yet, how reluctant parents (at least in our neck of the woods) seem to be to introduce the subject at any early age. Ali, an 8th grade school teacher, told me that HR is very much taboo in her school and that a teacher has to be careful about how they go about teaching it. I know that it is mandatory to teach the Holocaust in Illinois to 8th graders, but I believe we're the only state in the country with that rule. Why? Not only should it be taught; it should be taught with full disclosure at a younger age. I'm talking 5th grade.

We learn American history, in what, three or four repetitions? That's why by the time you graduate high school, the names of minor Civil War battles stick in your mind. I realize time and money are giant hurdles here, but we should begin to think about why major world events such as the Holocaust are not similarly introduced and repeated. We should be students and citizens of the world in addition to our country.

Now this all assumes that simply knowing what the Holocaust is will instill in children the desire to serve others, or at least prevent disservice. It probably won't. We can't begin to solve conflicts in Darfur and Afghanistan when we're unwilling to go to the Hispanic neighborhoods of Aurora.

There's a reason colleges like to see community service on prospectives' resumes. Why shouldn't high schools actively assist in the accessibility of community service projects? Offering classes is only one possibility. There could be clubs, extra credit, or even a mandatory component. Hell: why not drop one semester of mandatory phys. ed. and make kids log a certain number of hours of service?

I'm with you, Dave.

Ali Total Fitness said...

In high school we had to do a certain number of service hours to pass a psych class (I think it was psych). I wanted to do that with my kids. I wanted to require some sort of service to graduate, and I was warned against it. I was told that parents get very touchy when you force their kids to do anything. I agree with you, Dave. I think there should be some sort of required service, but I also think that we should start with kids. I have so many passionate students who have no where to channel their energy and who would no doubt grow and learn from a service project. So we start with the parents, convince them that having an empathetic child is a good thing, and then you get the schools on board. Sounds like a plan to me.