Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Teaching by doing

I have to be honest: I have never been a big fan of "service learning," when it involves the admixture of academic obligation with pressured volunteerism. In the essay Ellen Condliffe Lagemann and I wrote in What Is College For?, we take a dim view of the way it had displaced civic education rather than embodying it.

But the continuing official commentary on the freshman kindness pledge has reminded me to say that the right way to get students to be more kind is to model kindness ourselves, to honor those who are kind, and to keep putting good models before them. Less talk, please, about how the exercise of pledge-signing was "hijacked" by some unnamed party. Fewer "conversations" about our values, more positive data points from which those we are educating can learn what those values are. Please, not another statement of values (we have one already, one that was the result of lengthy negotiation and editing involving faculty, deans, and the president; has it worked?). Instead, how about some official disapprobation when members of our community dishonor important values.

Consider these examples of simple but deeply educational things people could be doing instead of talking.

I learned today that my other alma mater, the Roxbury Latin School, has organized boys to help give dignified burials for the indigent. A funeral home has made its space available, the School has contributed a van and the time of a teacher, and the boys act as pallbearers. A remote graveyard was located that will accept these burials for the pittance the Commonwealth provides for such purposes.

When I described this to a friend, he told me how his mother, in a local nursing home, gets weekly visits from Harvard students, who are just trying to bring some cheer to the lives of the elderly and surely are not trying to earn any points.

Such examples are all around us, as are failures of kindness that pass without comment. I object to the pledge exercise not because I don't think Harvard should be in the business of promoting kindness and building character more generally, but precisely because I do, and the pledge is a bumper-sticker gesture where modeling the good and objecting to the bad would provide some actual edification.

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