"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Myth And Reality Of Community Service

The son of a good friend of mine went to Fernley, a well-known Quaker school in a major East Coast city.  My friend told me about the school’s community service program and how it sent exactly the wrong message to students.  Quakers had always been at the forefront of fighting racial injustice ever since their passionate support of abolition, and felt more than ever committed to racial equality.  The school had an aggressive affirmative action program, and although somewhat dissatisfied with the results, soldiered on.  It was difficult to find inner city students who had the ability and educational background, and correct social upbringing to meet the schools high standards; but they persisted and ironically created a more racially divided student body than they had ever envisaged.  Because of affirmative action, the school became the very image of de facto apartheid that they abhorred.  Black kids sat on their end of the bleachers, ate together at their lunchroom tables; and socialized and hung out exclusively together.

Every official school ceremony was either officiated or inaugurated by one of the black students.  Everyone had to sign up for ‘Diversity Training’, and the achievements of minority students were featured in ever edition of school publications. 

My friend said he knew that the Quakers were serious about racial issues, but he had no idea how serious.  His son told him what most parents already knew – the school’s racial policy and programs was simply reinforcing prejudice and preconceived notions.  Because the black kids from the ghetto were no match for Fernley’s college-level curriculum and could barely hold their own in the rich and competitive environment of a supremely talented student body, white students quietly but decisively said, “Yup, just what I expected.” 

“It gets worse”, my friend went on. The Community Service Program offers opportunities only in the ghetto.  My son had to clean up neighborhood parks, churchyards, and playgrounds, was expected to go shoulder-to-shoulder with members of the local community in a show of racial solidarity. Of course the community which was responsible for the dog shit, trash, condoms, and needles in the park had used it as a dump for years and had absolutely no interest in cleaning it up.  So the white Fernley kids shoveled their shit. 

“What kind of a lesson does that send? All my son’s friends again said, ‘Yup, just what I expected’.

Not only that, my friend went on, it generalized the negative racial sentiment growing in the Fernley students.  Not only were they dismissive of individual minority students who couldn’t perform; they now dismissed the communities from which they came.

“Perhaps the worst part of the whole, sorry episode is that Fernley gave community service a bad name.  They twisted it, distorted it, and ruined it. The Quaker cause of racial harmony and integration had been discredited and the school’s reputation irreparably damaged.”

Communal effort is of course nothing new in American history. From barn-raising to candy stripers; and from soup kitchens to libraries, volunteerism is a very American phenomenon.  The Christian Science Monitor (12.21.11)  reported that the United States is far more charitable, community-minded, and generous than any other country:

Americans give more to help others than the residents of 152 other countries, according to a new global survey.That’s a big change from last year, when the United States ranked No. 5.

The poll, conducted last year with about 1,000 residents in each of 153 countries, asked people whether they had donated money to a charity, volunteered their time, or helped a stranger in the previous month.

By averaging the responses of people who had done each of those things, the survey ranked the United States as No. 1 with a score of 60. The average score for all countries included in the survey was 31.6.

Americans donated their time and money to causes which interested them. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that more than 25 percent of adults volunteered in 2013:

The main organization--the organization for which the volunteer worked the most hours during the year--was most frequently religious (33.0 percent of all volunteers),followed by educational or youth service related (25.6 percent) and social or community service organizations (14.7 percent).
In addition to these major categories, Americans volunteered for a wide range of causes.  Volunteers staff voting booths, distribute leaflets for environmental and social causes, prepare taxes and investment plans for the elderly, and teach literature in university continuing education programs. 
There are many ways to look at this volunteerism.  A progressive colleague of mine said that George H.W. Bush’s ‘thousand points of light’ was nothing more than an effort to shed government social programs.  The more emphasis he placed on community service, the easier it was for him to dismantle government initiatives.  Government programs should be strengthened, not weakened, he said.  “Government’s role is protecting and promoting the commonweal’, he said, quoting one of the less well-known framers of the Constitution. 
Conservative constructionists take the most reasoned and historically accurate position.   They point to the Declaration of Independence’s ‘Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’; and note how Jefferson’s meaning has been distorted.  He insisted that individuals should pursue own happiness only if it is consistent with community norms and values.  The individual is at the center of the new republic, Jefferson went on, but not at the expense of the community. 
In other words there is a contract between the individual and the community which cannot and should not be broken or abridged. 
The issue is not the value of volunteerism, but its particular and most appropriate role in American society vis-à-vis government and the private sector.  In the early days of the Republic, education was provided by churches whose goal was to provide children with both a religious and practical education.  Religious schools today continue this tradition and give children a grounding in religious faith, moral principles, and right behavior. Private, non-profit, and government hospitals all provide health services.  The US military is an all-volunteer force which compensates soldiers for their service. 
Volunteerism is Christian, patriotic, and self-interested. Most people volunteer out of a genuine interest in those served or out of a duty to community and country.  All volunteers feel good about what they do, for the cause they espouse says something about them as people.  Volunteering is an observable expression of patriotism, faith, or social conscience. 
What Fernley Quaker School did was a distortion of these principles.  By forcing a particular and politically-motivated volunteer agenda on students, it countered the very nature of the enterprise.  Americans volunteer because it feels good; and it only feels good if there is a consonance between belief and action.  Some people feel a particular obligation to brighten up the world of the institutionalized; but other find the experience depressing and even frightening.  Others are tireless in promoting the fight against climate change, while others feel particularly aggrieved about police brutality or migrant labor. Fernley twisted these natural impulses and in so doing wrung the life out of community service. 
My progressive colleague and his friends still think of FDR when they consider government intervention in social programs.  Without Roosevelt’s moral rectitude, commitment, and political power, the Depression would have lasted far longer and the suffering of Americans far worse.  Government can still play that premier role as protector and promoter of the commonweal if it were to regain its bearings and steady its focus. 
Unfortunately government has strayed from FDR’s vision and overreached at the same time. Public programs which could be handled far better by either the private or non-governmental sectors continue at considerable cost to the taxpayer.  Politicians have adamantly refused to go through a list of government programs to eliminate all but those which can only be done by the public sector.  
I suspect that the students who graduate from Fernley will indeed go on to perform some community service in their lives; but they will do so despite Fernley not because of it. 
My friend has no idea whether or not the school has modified or even discontinued its Community Service program; but doubts it.  The Quaker administrators feel good about their commitment to social causes.  The students ignore their black peers and go under duress to pick up syringes and needles at Fort Hamilton Park.  Parents feel good about sending their children to a school with a top-tier academic record and a sound moral foundation.  My friend, however, said that his last support of the school went with his last tuition check.  His charitable contributions would be made elsewhere. 

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