Schmucks and Heroes

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Several weeks ago, I read a column by David Brooks. In addition to his essays and books, Brooks writes a regular column for the NY Times in which he typically comments on politics culture, and society. While I often disagree with his analysis, he is a good writer and frequently provides thoughtful, provocative and interesting perspectives.

The column entitled “The Service Patch” focused on the false contrast between choosing a career in an area like investment banking vs. a career in a non-profit agency. Brooks contends that too many recent college graduates, especially those with the best credentials, see a point of tension between pursuing job opportunities in high paying and high prestige companies and working in less lucrative positions in areas that address global problems and human needs.

What was of most interest to me, however, was Brooks’ contention that for too many people, “… community service has become a patch for morality.” Brooks argues that the career path you choose is less important than the type of person you are. And in fact, good people work for hedge funds and immoral people work to save the world. As Brooks states, “…you can devote your life to community service and be a total schmuck. You can spend your life on Wall Street and be a hero.”

Brooks also makes the point that many young people do not understand the true meaning of virtue, character and excellence. They are not able to do a “moral evaluation” in their own lives and the lives of others. Therefore, community service is viewed as a synonym for being a good person. As he writes about this generation, “…if you are doing the sort of work that Bono celebrates then you must be a good person.”

At colleges like Anna Maria, community service is a major area of focus. We see our mission as centered on the balance between providing a quality educational experience (that leads to a fulfilling profession and career), and developing a commitment to serving the Common Good (that leads to a life of exemplary citizenship).

But Brooks’ column raises two interesting questions. Do students perform community service because they believe it demonstrates that they are good people? Are community service activities viewed as part of a check list to be added to a resume or simply as a person’s “resource allocation?"  The answers to these questions are neither simple nor the same for every student.

Clearly, community service is viewed as a good thing. Students active in service initiatives are recognized and praised publicly for their efforts. And aside from the person performing the service, these efforts are inherently good for the community. Our students who work as tutors in schools, clean up parks, serve people in soup kitchens, and renovate homes in depressed neighborhoods are providing clear and meaningful value to the community. The recipients of community service (social service agencies and individuals in need) benefit greatly.

But what motivates our students? Is it an inherent commitment to service and helping our neighbors? Or is it a more calculated strategy to build a reputation or develop a profile for future employment? At Anna Maria with so many students pursuing careers in nursing, social work, teaching, public safety, etc., it would seem safe to assume that helping others is a prime motivation. Helping others is what these students and graduates will do for their entire lives. Service is both their avocation and their vocation.

But Brooks’ deeper question is whether or not service correlates with morality? Does community service define virtue, morality and ethics? Warren Bennis, the noted scholar and researcher, made famous the statement, “Leaders are people who do the right thing; managers are people who do things right.” Are more of our students leaders or managers? Are more of our students heroes or schmucks?

(Your comments and ideas are always welcome.)

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  • Guest
    Susan Roney-O'Brien Monday, 16 July 2012

    Dear President Jack Calareso,

    I'm no hero. I graduated from Anna Maria with an MA-Education in 1989 and have been teaching middle school ever since. In that time I've been fortunate enough to work with about 2500 students. I teach because I love the students and the all-of-a-sudden light bulb moment. My students are writers and artists, thinkers and planners. They give me great faith that our world will be in strong, capable hands when those in my declining generation have moved aside. Teaching renews faith. My students are smarter than I am, more computer-literate, and have an amazing gift; they know what is fair, what is right, and what will make a difference. They are loyal to their friends, have learned to respect their enemies. They are, above all, willing to be amazed and will do their best if someone expects that. I do.

    What matters is not the concept of heroism, but the fact that good education engenders heroism, not necessarily "save-the-world" type, but the everyday understanding, support and encouragement that can make each of us a hero in someone's eyes. I see students helping others, taking the time to pick up, clean out, bring hope. Helping someone in need appears to be a natural reaction for many. I am frequently mentioned when students are applying to the NHS in high school. Community service is, of course, part of the requirement for acceptance into the National Honor Society. Most know that service projects will get them into a better college. But many of them are simply continuing work begun in their families and in elementary and middle school. Giving and helping are responses to need. Need generates empathy. Empathy inspires action to do good.

    When I talk to my students, I advise them to find a career that they love, one that each day inspires them. That way they can pass the excitement on and be that hero...

    Thank you for your consideration of the issue. We all benefit from contemplative leaders.

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