OF THE GOVERNOR'S CALL TO SERVICE
07/31/1999: Altruism 101:
An LA Times Editorial
Submitted by: Erika Freihage
Los Angeles Times Editorials
July 31, 1999
Kathry M. Downing, Publisher
Michael Parks, Editor
Janet Clayton, Editor of the Editorial Pages
Gov. Gray Davis' request earlier this month that California colleges
make community service a graduation requirement is unassailable
in principle. What could be wrong with teaching students, as the
governor puts it, that "a service ethic . . . [has] lasting
value in California"?
However, Davis, who wants the plan put into practice by fall of
2000, left the details of its implementation to the faculty of the
state's University of California, California State University and
community college systems. Some officials who oppose requiring community
service are raising concerns, but these can be resolved:
*Some professors are pointing to a recent study by the American
Psychological Society that found that students who are forced to
volunteer -- especially those who are not willing or ready -- will
probably be put off from volunteering later in life.
However, that study -- focusing on college students in Minnesota
who were required to fulfill a "work experience requirement"
-- concluded that "only a minority of students . . . were negatively
impacted" by the mandate. Numerous other studies have shown
that community service programs greatly increase students' civic-mindedness
so long as they are carefully designed. The key to success is ensuring
that students are able to choose projects that relate to their course
work and enable them to do good in visible ways.
Models of such programs already exist in the Cal State system.
In Cal State Dominguez Hills' "Hope to Grow" program,
for example, undergraduates studying education have shown great
enthusiasm teaching third-graders in disadvantaged schools.
*Some critics of Davis' notion say community service might be fine
for students interested in teaching and other civic-minded work
but it won't interest students in more rarefied fields like microbiology.
Think again. Programs like Cal State Northridge's Center for Community
Service have given science majors well-chosen opportunities to help
communities solve environmental problems. Last year, for instance,
students scooped water from low-lying gutters and puddles after
heavy rains in Pacoima to determine whether water was contaminated
by leakage from septic tanks. Their work benefited public health
while helping them practice book-learned knowledge in the real world.
According to a national survey of American college freshmen that
UCLA's Alexander Astin conducted last year, college students are
showing a greater interest in community service than at any other
time since Astin's survey began in the 1960s. Davis' plan could
give them the opportunity to exercise that interest.
State leaders will have to give colleges sufficient funding to
make the governor's idea work, especially since higher education
resources are already strained in preparing for an expected 500,000-student
enrollment surge over the next decade. But if properly implemented,
a community service program could reap a valuable return in a new
generation of civically minded citizens.