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Education & the Common Good: Who Cares?

By Tiffani Razavi

Recently, my daughter, who just started her senior year of high school, expressed concern that she doesn’t have enough to say in her U.S. college applications about her service to the community. She was full of tales of friends who had started new clubs (though had never been active in them), and who could produce long and varied lists of evidence of leadership and high-profile participation. She has sustained one form of community service throughout high school, working with a small but diverse group of children, and she is worried that colleges don’t care. Admissions officers won’t look twice. She knows it’s a game, but she still doesn’t want to lose. This is a systemic problem identified in a recent report of the Making Caring Common Project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which calls attention to the values at the core of education as the potential foundation for real social change. The authors describe how the U.S. college system demands and reinforces individualism to the detriment of the common good. The messages colleges send about what is sought, valued, and rewarded in applicants generally emphasize personal achievement and success, even in relation to community engagement and concern for others. Schools may strive to nurture empathy and caring attitudes within their communities, but as students seek success beyond high school, the authenticity of these values can be compromised by the competitive nature of college admissions and the perception of what really counts. The report asserts that reshaping the admissions process to redefine achievement alongside the assessment of students’ caring contributions to others would promote more meaningful community service and engagement with the public good among young people. The challenge for colleges is to genuinely value, and to communicate clearly to applicants, the kinds of service and contributions to society that “are most likely to lead to responsible work, caring relationships, and ethical citizenship.” Specific recommendations are focused on the quality of engagement. For example, community service should be meaningful and sustained, for at least one year, and include contributions to the family. “What counts” state the authors, “is not whether service occurred locally or in some distant place, or whether students were leaders, but whether students immersed themselves in an experience and the emotional and ethical awareness and skills generated by that experience.” Collective action—that is, the experience of working in groups on community problems—is also encouraged, especially when such experiences include opportunities to engage with others from diverse backgrounds, learning from one another as they seek to address school and community challenges. Finally, the experience of service includes a reflective component that nurtures gratitude for the contributions made by others and a sense of responsibility to the common good in the future. In addition to perpetuating a self-centered culture within and beyond educational institutions, the report describes how the college admissions system unwittingly further penalizes applicants from economically diverse backgrounds. It recommends that colleges give value to contributions to family and provide students with clear opportunities to report such activities as caring for younger siblings, taking responsibility for major household tasks, and contributing to family income. Further, colleges should give more weight to daily awareness and conduct in relation to others than to high profile stints of service. Re-weighting the importance of service to the common good and increasing sensitivity to economic diversity also requires colleges to rethink the perception of achievement. To this end, the report offers a number of specific recommendations for admissions offices, including prioritizing quality rather quantity, both in relation to academic and extracurricular activities and qualifications; encouraging the use of authentic student voice in applications; and reducing test pressure in the absence of data correlating test scores to academic performance at their institutions. As helpful as it would be to have colleges take up all or even some of the recommendations of this report, it is only part of the story. Educators at all levels are thinking, writing, and talking about the importance of nurturing in the young the attitudes and actions of empathy, compassion, and concern for others as we become increasingly aware of the dangerous implications for future generations of global social trends of division, migration, marginalization, and intolerance. More than that, there is action and experience, and teachers, schools, and parents persevere. This isn’t a new discourse, or a nice program, but rather an educational imperative of our time. References: Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions, Created by Making Caring Common. Making Caring Common (MCC), a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. [email protected]

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