MAXWELL: There’s salvation in service

7/31/1994 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

The July/August issue of Utne Reader is disturbing. The magazine’s cover photograph of angst-faced young people captures Kurt Cobain’s legacy of self-annihilation. Accompanying the picture is an equally troubling headline: “Today’s teens: dissed, mythed and totally pissed, a generation and a nation at risk.”

Inside, the magazine treats its readers to 22 pages of gloomy but mostly useful material about what ails today’s young people and about how to rescue them. One of the upbeat articles, titled “Postgraduate work in the streets,” is excerpted from Suzanne Goldsmith’s book, A City Year, that chronicles her experiences with a group of teenage volunteers in a Boston community service program.

This is the same program President Clinton used in the National and Community Service Trust Act signed last September and one that I believe can save many of the youngsters depicted in Utne Reader.

Slowly, experts from various disciplines and agencies are realizing that the president, despite his own ethical problems, is right in believing that young people can help solve societal and environmental problems and can learn to make good moral decisions if they’re permitted to serve other people in meaningful ways.

Judith A. Boss is one authority convinced that Clinton is on target. Distressed by a 1986 New York Times article that says we’re letting today’s college students grow up “as ethical illiterates and moral idiots, unprepared to cope with ordinary life experiences,” Boss conducted a one-semester study in 1991.

She correctly hypothesized that undergraduate ethics students who did community service work as part of their course requirements would score higher at semester’s end on a test of moral reasoning than students who didn’t work in the community. Complete results of the study are in the most recent issue of the Journal of Moral Education.

Obviously, Boss’ hypothesis is fraught with assumptions that, at the risk of oversimplifying, need outlining:

First, students who practice moral principles learned in the classroom will probably continue using them to make decisions in other environments. Second, students who discuss ethical dilemmas experienced in their community service and daily lives will be more capable of satisfactorily resolving moral dilemmas they’ll face later. Why? Because actual work and discussions about the problems involved in that work should move students away from ethical relativism and toward more principled reasoning.

Third, reasoning at a higher level of ethical development is desirable. Fourth, such ethical training _ learning to reason autonomously and independently _ puts students on the fast track to becoming “good” or moral. And morality, characterized in part by a concern for justice and respect for other people’s rights, holds benefits that contemporary America must rediscover.

The study involved 71 undergraduates, mostly sophomores, enrolled in two sections of ethics at the University of Rhode Island. The sections were approximately the same size, with 37 females and 34 males, met on the same day for an equal time and had the same professor. The average age was 20.3. One class served as the experimental group and the other the control group. Both were administered the same pretest and post-test of moral reasoning. On the flip side, members of the experimental group were required to perform 20 hours of community service and keep a journal of their experiences. Students worked in places such as nursing homes, soup kitchens and homeless shelters, house- and yard-cleaning facilities, recreation agencies and a pregnancy crisis center.

Members of the control group weren’t required to perform community service and instead could write an essay based on their reading, class discussions and simulated moral dilemmas. Both the community service work and the essay were worth 25 percent of the final grade.

The results are impressive, and their implications can serve as a guide for everyone claiming to care about our children. Both classes scored an average of 40 on the pretest. Only about 14 percent of the groups combined scored 50 or higher, the score indicating that the students were using principled reasoning. By semester’s end, however, Boss had confirmed her hypothesis far beyond expectations: 51 percent of those in the experimental group now used principled reasoning, while the number of students in the control group using principled reasoning stayed at about 14 percent.

What caused this drastic change between the groups? And, in practical terms, what does the study reveal? Some of Boss’ conclusions are worth quoting at length:

“Community service not only improves sensitivity to moral issues, but helps students overcome negative stereotypes that often act as a barrier to interacting with other people. Community service work challenges people’s egocentrism by demanding that they actively care for the welfare of another person. . . .

“Community service work has several advantages over simulated experiences in a classroom because it puts students in direct contact with community values and “real life’ moral dilemmas. It is difficult to engage in denial or minimize feelings of moral obligation if one is face to face with a homeless woman and her children, a rape victim or an elderly person who feels depressed and abandoned by the world.”

How did students in the experimental group respond to being forced to perform community service, and what did they learn? Consider the comments of a sophomore whose initial reason for taking the course was to be near her boyfriend:

“I’ve realized that if one person can make a difference, then more than one person _ many people _ can make a HUGE difference. I sincerely enjoyed all the volunteer work . . . and shall continue to engage in (it). I first felt pressured into doing it and was rather unhappy about it. However, once I started with it, I really feel good about myself knowing that I was making a difference in others. The elderly people were so grateful. . . .”

I’m not so naive as to believe that community service is the magic bullet for solving all of today’s problems. But as one who’s spent many years assisting migrant farm workers, I’ve been able to recruit dozens of young people to join the cause.

Over the years, I’ve watched every one of them become contributing members of their communities. One of them, a former student at the college where I used to teach, will travel to Rwanda as a member of his church mission.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer for the Times.