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Valley Perspective

Use Education Not Just to Make Money, but to Make Things Better

November 05, 2000|MAUREEN RUBIN | Maureen Rubin is director of the Center for Community Service Learning at Cal State Northridge

In "Pay It Forward," Warner Bros.' new movie, Kevin Spacey plays Eugene Simonet, a psychologically damaged but idealistic seventh-grade teacher who asks his students to "think of an idea to change our world and put it into action."

Eleven-year-old Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osmet) tries to do just that: to change the world with nothing but his heart, his naive belief in the goodness of people and a novel idea for an altruistic pyramid scheme that his mother Arlene (Helen Hunt) describes as "a Mother Theresa conga line."

Trevor comes up with a plan, which he explains with a blackboard drawing, saying, "This is me. This is three people. I'm going to help them." And then each of the benefactors, in turn, will be told to "pay it forward" to three other needy people of their choice.

The concept of "paying it forward" is not just a Hollywood fantasy. Rather, it is a slightly altered portrayal of a national movement called service learning, which places students in the community to perform altruistic service related to the classes they are taking. In real life, service-learning students, whether in K-12 or college, are responsibly placed, monitored and supervised.

In the movie, Trevor ventures alone into a modern-day Las Vegas Hooverville, where he locates a homeless heroin addict, brings him home, gives him a bowl of cereal and lets him take a shower. After a few setbacks, the homeless man ultimately pays it forward by stopping a woman from taking a suicidal leap from a bridge.

This Hollywood scenario is about as real as the movie "Mission to Mars." No responsible teacher, of course, would send a kid into a drug-infested shantytown. Service-learning assignments are carefully planned and supervised.

The community experience is tied to what goes on in the classroom. Simonet did a little of this when he asked students about their town and its relationship to the world and whether they thought Trevor's plan was an "overly Utopian idea." He was making them think and engaging them in critical analysis, a key element of successful service-learning and a skill that employers say is woefully lacking in many new college graduates.

At Cal State Northridge, students in more than 80 classes provide services such as academic tutoring and cultural enrichment activities for schoolchildren, computer and skills classes for at-risk teens and the elderly, and environmental safety tests in low-income homes. They assist nonprofit agencies and small businesses with accounting, management and marketing needs, and even redesigned the jury room in the Van Nuys Courthouse to make it more user-friendly.

Why does higher education promote service-learning? Ask young people if they intend to vote in Tuesday's election. If statistics echo the last presidential election, only 32% of 18- to 24-year-olds will say yes. Only 50% have bothered to register to vote. Their view of government ranges from disgust to anger or frustration. Higher education is being blamed for some of this disenchantment.

Since the 1980s, national leaders have been chastising colleges for their "Ivory Tower" aloofness, for producing abstract research that wouldn't recognize a community problem if it bit them on the nose, and for rewarding faculty who publish irrelevant articles in obscure journals instead of those who teach or work with students to bring about desired change.

Ernest Boyer of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching challenged universities to pursue what he called "the scholarship of engagement." Service-learning is the latest and one of the most successful incarnation of the university's response.

CSUN's Center for Community Service Learning recently received $150,000 to develop new classes and support student involvement in meaningful community service linked to course content. In addition to providing service to our neighbors, the funds will hopefully spur civic engagement and community involvement among our students and make them active citizens with lifelong commitments to using their education not just to make money, but to make things better.

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