The Millennials are coming! Or are they rising? Actually, they have arrived, says Neil Howe, co-author of the 2000 book Millennials Rising, a volume that has found its way to the shelf of every college admissions and student affairs professionals. And with them has come a penchant for community service. Today’s young people spend more hours in community volunteer work and service projects than any generation before them – and with this service comes an oft-underutilized opportunity for the kind of trying, undergoing, and connecting by reflecting that Dewey described as the organic circuit of learning.
But that’s not my point today. Instead I want to point out that“the service agenda” has become a political message as well. Both presidential candidates are touting the glories of citizens serving others. Time Magazine. The Carnegie Corporation, the AARP, Target and others are together helping to make “The Case for National Service” (see wwwservicenation.org).
I bring this up for two reasons. First, I am an avid advocate for national service. I think it would be swell if every American (or American wanna-be) between the ages of 18 and 22 spent at least one year in some form of service (educational, environmental, military, infrastructure-building, security, emergency-responding, or whatever else we can imagine) in exchange for a subsistence wage, further education credits (to complete GED, obtain job training or attend college), and the right to vote. They would live with other young people under conditions of minimal supervision and have responsibility for paying their own bills (without the benefit of credit cards). (By they way, I’d also be happy to tie receipt of social security benefits by older citizens to part-time service in domains appropriate to their interest and expertise.)
Second, I think it’s important to give credit where credit is due. As far as I’m concerned, the millennials’ interest in community service is not an accident. It’s a function of a push by educators (individuals, schools, districts, state departments of education, and even university professors J) to incorporate service learning, character development and citizenship awareness into curricula and requirements.
I am not saying that these efforts were as widespread nor as well-done as they might have been. Much of the push to service learning followed the minimalist Maryland dictum that students must amass a certain number of service hours to graduate from high school. And I’m well aware – based on the experience of my own children – that service hours do not always prompt constructive reflection and are often fudged. Still, kids listen when we talk even when it seems like they are paying no attention. And the truth is that service is its own reward. Not all kids attend to the people they are serving and the situations that require their assistance – but many do. Once they see that their work makes a difference, they are hooked. Making a difference is one of those natural reinforcers that young people find hard to resist.
So let’s give the schools some credit here. (We rarely do, you know. Consider the blame placed on schools during the Reagan years when our nation was at risk economically because schools were failing. Then think about the relative Clinton “boom times” a decade later. Did you hear anybody acknowledging the difference schools were making???? I thought not.) Schools may not be the only tool for social reform, but schooling does have a significant impact on the quality of community life. The current focus on service is not purely accidental. Kids may not recognize that service supports the development of a meaningful sense of self at the same time that it enables a deeper understanding of the structure and function of the communities of knowledge and action in which we live. It’s up to educators to see and express this lofty goal. But kids know it’s worth doing, and they want to keep doing it. Let’s continue to encourage them.