Service without reflection is just unpaid work

The day before Thanksgiving, the New York Times published an article on service requirements for high schoolers.

The reporter chose to highlight service requirements for students at expensive private schools, unnecessarily confounding modern ideas about service with noblesse oblige (perhaps so readers could be titillated reading about rich kids who fulfill their service hours on thinly disguised vacations to Thailand and Mexico).

But the reporter's point was this: "Cynics call these programs a form of forced altruism. Proponents say that they widen students’ horizons while getting service work done. Either way, the backlash has begun: not only do college admissions officers roll their eyes at bogus-sounding claims, but high schools are scaling back the requirements, acknowledging that a lot of the so-called service is meaningless."

Well, duh, service for the sake of getting in your hours is just unpaid work.

What makes service meaningful is reflection. Who is helping these young people identify skills and understanding they're developing by working with organizations and with people who are outside their social circle? Is anyone helping them see how their service is bigger than "me doing for you," that it is a way to contribute to the common good - THEIR common good?

With an incoming president committed to active citizenship, discussions about service - what it is and what it can be - are going to be more and more common.


I beg to differ. Often things we are encouraged or forced to do end up being good for us. I think the real issue is not the quality of the workers and their intent, but the quality of the volunteer work offered and the level of exposure into or immersion in a civic or community problem they are offered. Teenagers will often look for an angle to get the most out of the least effort, but organizers take shortcuts, too.

I have read that some churches are looking to curtail out-of-country ministries, as the the organizers of the efforts base the projects volunteers work on outdated or false information. A school in one South American town was painted three times by three different church groups in the space of a year, while there were other projects screaming for assistance. Organizers need to learn that volunteer work is not banking volunteer time, but creating concrete results and ties based on the needs of the community it hopes to service. It means listening to needs, not creating a pastoral experience for volunteers.

Hi Ramona,
Thank you for commenting on my post. I agree with you on each of your points: the likely benefits of "forced altruism," the need for quality service opportunities, and the necessity of those doing service to take time to develop relationships with those they intend to serve so that communication - and learning and appreciation - flows both ways.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs