Five Hours of Community Service in Forty-Five Minutes: Thoughts on Moral Education
Picture the scene: It’s Final Exams Week in a local high school. Students are scampering down the hallway, rushing from their lockers to their classrooms. Amid the bustling, nervously looking at his watch, one student complains to another: “Great. I have forty-five minutes to perform my five hours of community service.” The panicked student is referring to the hours of volunteering that the school has included in its high school curriculum. Each student is obligated to fulfill these five hours of volunteer service any way he sees fit, at any time, before the end of the semester. In fact, students are only admitted to their final exams after submitting their community service form, which lists the time and location of their community service. Apparently one student has neglected to serve his community for five hours that semester. This is a true story I recently heard, one that touches upon some fundamental questions about how we educate our students in the moral and civic realms.
Is education simply the transmission of data from one human to another? Reading a book, one might argue, would be a much more efficient – and cheaper – method of informational sharing. Watching a movie can be more engaging in certain situations. But these are tools of our craft, not its essence. I think most of us would agree that education encompasses much more than simple knowledge transfer. As teachers, our duty is to nurture the development of a student’s whole persona, not just her mind. We work at cultivating young men and women who are more curious about the world around them, but also more concerned with the people around them. Different teachers will rank moral education higher or lower in their own hierarchy of goals, but for most of us, it is an important piece of what we do. Much ink has been spilled about the parameters and efficacy of moral education, from Jean Piaget to Lawrence Kohlberg. But I was reminded of the subject upon learning of this conversation among students, and of the student’s neglect to fulfill his hours of school community service.
Teaching morality and generosity of spirit is a tricky business. As this anecdote illustrates, it isn’t easy to transform a student from one who is self-centered and apathetic to one who is benevolent and conscious of his responsibility towards her community. There is, however, one important principle that school administrators should keep in mind: if a subject or value is important, then make time for it in school.
Educators who are interested in cultivating kindness in their students need to address this goal like any other in the curriculum, in so far as time is concerned. If we want students to internalize values of compassion and of giving back to the community, then we need to schedule it during school hours. Mandating that students take from their own free time in order to volunteer (is there a greater oxymoron that “mandating volunteering”?) is an unrealistic plan. Is it really surprising that a significant number of students would show up at the end of the semester not having fulfilled this requirement? And how many students who did fill in the form actually performed five hours of genuine community service (without stretching the definitions of “community service” or “five hours”)?
If we want to teach these values, then let’s teach them – during school hours, when we teach everything else. It’s a wonderful opportunity for teachers to serve as role models for their students. There are so many school community service ideas from which to choose. Organize day trips to local nursing homes, send volunteers to homeless shelters, or assign students to visit the sick at hospitals. Give children the chance to actually live and learn the meaning of community service. If we don’t, then we risk producing too many students who not only don’t volunteer their time, but who also figure out dubious ways to say that they have. We can do better.