Too Much Community Service?

This popped up in my news feed Saturday AM: Brown Students Complain Homework is Interfering With Their Activism.

Now, whatever you think about the cause for which they are working, the idea of university students complaining because their coursework is getting in the way of protesting and other activities should cause a few eye blinks and a little concern. Why do you go to college, if not to go to class and learn something? Why is protesting anything more important than education? As I mulled those questions over, I started to wonder if perhaps, universities’ emphasis on “leadership” and “community service” isn’t part of the problem.

Over the past 30 years or so, more and more colleges and universities began talking about the “whole student” and looking beyond the report card. Part of this was so other factors, including culture and ethnicity, could be weighted and considered without obviously doing so (at least until a few years ago). But I’ve watched more and more pushes for proof that the applicant is not “just” a bright, studious person. The ideal college applicant now seems to have a B+ grade average, to serve as an officer for multiple clubs, to participate in a dozen charitable activities on at least a weekly basis, to belong to multiple service groups (but not certain Christian or Jewish ones, at least at some schools), and do some athletics, as well as having interesting, socially-acceptable hobbies. The grades and test scores are, perhaps, not the most important pieces of the holistic-student puzzle.

This puts enormous stress on students and their parents who are aiming for the major Ivy League and public universities, as well as the most competitive colleges. If you have your heart set on Cal-Poly or Rensselaer, or some of the other engineering or hard-core science schools, things are probably a little different, but students (and their parents) still must show that they are “well-rounded” and “community minded.” For introverted book worms like yours truly, this would have been the kiss of death, since I did volunteer work but focused on getting good grades (pretend math is not on my transcript). I avoided student council, Key Club, and anything else that required campaigning.

Before I go on, I believe that volunteer work and helping other people are valuable parts of being a well-rounded human. As long as they are voluntary, and the individual is not being coerced into something he or she disagrees with. I’ll help do chores for homebound folks, or pick up litter and dog-poo at the park, or put in a few hours at the food pantry. You couldn’t get me to march with a sign if you paid me, and I refuse flat-out to assist certain groups with which I have deep philosophical differences. When doing “good works” becomes a requirement for a non-religious college, well, there’s a few problems.

Problem number one: introverts are at a disadvantage. We can overcome it, and some colleges don’t weight elected service that heavily. I suspect four years volunteering at the animal shelter is probably better for society than being student council president, but that’s just me. Ditto being a Scout, or participating in religion-based volunteer work.

Problem number two: It conditions students that “community service” is as important, or more important than classes. Toss in the hot-house atmosphere of some college campi, where changing the world, saving the planet, freeing Tibet, saving the whales, or rectifying the wrongs of [thing] is part of some faculty’s classroom protocol, and it should not be a surprise that students get pulled into the mindset that serving The Cause takes priority over turning in projects and taking tests. But they are also told that you have to go to college, get good grades, and graduate with the right degree in order to get a job, and their parents are probably voicing a few concerns about spending $$$ for tuition to classes that the student is skipping in order to attend organizational meetings and protests.

The result is you have a few students who chuck classes to give all to The Cause, a few who are torn in knots because they are trying to be perfect students with a 4.0 as well as saving the world, and the bulk of students who think that yeah, The Cause has some merit but they want to go to class, do their work, and be left alone. Oh, and a few who are ignoring The Cause, doing the minimum in class, and partying four nights a week.* They probably don’t have the stress problems groups 1 and 2 suffer from (yet.) And the activist personality being what it is, groups 1 and 2 are stressing group 3 because of their insistence that everyone must get as wound up in The Cause and Community!!!! as they are.

Which leads to another question: what is the purpose of college? To finish learning how to learn? A place to be exposed to great ideas and new knowledge, a community of scholars interested in exploring the world and the core of what it means to be human? Or a place from which to launch attacks on all that is evil and corrupt, a place where you stay and eat and meet with fellow activists in between protests and Important Deeds?

I can see religious schools and seminaries and other places of religious instruction focusing heavily on Community Service, because of religion. I’d expect the faculty and students of a Quaker college to hold anti-war protests – in some ways, that’s part of being a Quaker. But Brown, for example is not to my knowledge a religious institution in the usual sense. Students should be attending Brown and other secular colleges and universities in order to learn about the world and to gain a base of knowledge they can build on. If that is not the purpose of the university, then perhaps the administrators, and trustees and regents, need to change their advertising material and the pitch they use to get parents and students to part with their $$ and to take on large amounts of debt.

I understand student stress. I sweated grades and had real problems with my world view colliding with that of academia. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for students who want their job – that being going to class and doing the work – to stop interfering with their volunteer work. Something sounds bass akwards to me.

*Yes, for some students, college is a place to live while they party out of sight of their parents and do everything possible to break the shackles of convention and familial tradition. And colleges tend to be putting a great deal of emphasis on amenities that don’t have all that much to do with traditional academic pursuits. Doesn’t mean its in the long, long term best interest of the college, however.


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