Friday, June 29, 2007

Drilling the Spirit of Service

Having studied in a Jesuit school for seventeen years, one of my complaints is that they tried too hard into instilling the spirit of service into their students. For me, service is about volunteering, about taking your own initiative to help others. When it's required of you for one whole school year at the risk of not passing the subject, that's conscription. Xavier School tries to makes its students socially aware and has many programs to teach this. During my senior year in high school, most of us were required to participate in a 3-day immersion in which we would live with an adopted rural family. For me that's okay--at the end of the day, three days is just three days (unfortunately, this isn't reality TV). The other program is during our junior year, each and every class was required to teach a class in a public school once every week (more or less, barring holidays and the like). While the spirit behind the program is noble, is it really effective or even ethical?

Xavier School's motto is to be "Men for Others" and I do believe that is a worthwhile goal. However, it is not a mantle that you can force upon someone. The school has many public service programs and they involve volunteers. And thankfully, students and faculty alike do volunteer, although not necessarily for the most altruistic of reasons. I'll be honest--a lot of the service-oriented activities involves the school organizations and a big motivation for some of the students is the social aspect of the organization, whether it's maintaining their clique or having a good opportunity to partner with our all-girls sister school (Xavier is an all-boys school). Now I'm not criticizing the student's motivations for volunteering--I'm just saying that aside from the genuine need to help and educate others, each person has other agendas that are similarly being fulfilled by the act of service. And at the end of the day, there is a difference between the people who do volunteer (irregardless of their true agenda) and those who don't.

Having said that, I think the programs of the organizations are vastly superior to that of the school proper itself, especially the part where juniors are required to teach at public schools. My main concern is with two things: desire and training. The volunteers have a strong desire to educate these public school kids and to their credit, are backed up with better training skills (they even make lesson plans beforehand). Us ragtag of juniors don't have either. Well, we usually make an improvised lesson plan the day before or the day itself but I think the bigger issue is motivation. Let's face it, some of the students, myself included, simply don't want to teach. As far as skills are concerned, we have the requisite knowledge (i.e. we're smarter than them). But anyone who's taught knows that teaching isn't just about who's smarter or wiser. It involves a lot of other factors, from empathy to getting your point across to communicating with forty students at one time. What's worse I think is that we're just there one week at a time--we're like permanent substitute teachers (if there is ever such a thing) so I highly doubt it if the students are learning something from us as well. Sometimes I wonder if this isn't a "pity" project by the school--"Observe how better off you all are and that is why you should be responsible citizens."

It's not that I don't want the school to have service projects. I really do. However, I do think there are some projects where you need volunteers and not coerce people into serving them. Back when I was serving at the service department (honestly the last place I expected to be in, either back then or even now looking back), one of the projects we had for the freshmen was to help clean up the school. In terms of service, I think that's a feasible program, irregardless if the students want to participate or not (who really wants to volunteer to cleaning duty?). Whether such an activity truly instills the spirit of service into them is debatable, but as far as effectiveness is concerned, it is quite adequate.

Perhaps the question I really want to ask is how does one instill the spirit of service into other people? How do we get them to volunteer? Personally, in many ways, I find my alma matter's techniques to be a conundrum: you can't teach someone to volunteer by forcing them to do it. And perhaps the weakness of any such program is that it reduces the participants to one rank-and-file job. Honestly, people work best when we're making the most out of their talents. In the same way that some people are better suited to teach, others are better suited to logistics, and others are simply better leaders than followers, I think the answer to true service is letting the participants work on their strengths, on tasks they find personal fulfillment in. Unfortunately, most programs are more like "sign up here if this is your strength" rather than "volunteer and we'll find the right task for you".

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