Schools, Volunteers And Paper Chases

COMMENT

January 10, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

The state's new requirement of 75 hours of volunteer work in order to graduate from high school seems to generate more lip service than community service.

While the state Board of Education sanctimoniously decreed this extracurricular servitude, the local school boards, teachers, parents and students agonized over the exceedingly difficult implementation.

Tomorrow night, the Harford County Board of Education will make its Solomonic decision on the program. Like other counties, Harford is still waiting for some solid guidelines from the state to implement the rule.

Maryland is the first state to adopt this graduation rule. Based on some remotely similar programs elsewhere, the Maryland board declared that the lessons of voluntarism would be learned through conscription -- the same kind of volunteer ethos shared by millions of males faced with the certainty of military draft in past decades.

The service standard will affect ninth graders entering the system this September. That is, unless bills drafted by several legislators to abolish the rule are enacted, over the governor's promised veto, this year.

Some local boards have been dragging their heels, hoping for a reprieve. Others are pressing ahead, gearing up for the Herculean validation and record-keeping procedures that will be needed.

Harford County school officials instead took the semantic approach. If the state pedagogues could establish the oxymoron "mandatory volunteer service" as an educational standard, they reasoned, why not declare Harford's entire secondary school syllabus as a comprehensive lesson in the virtues of volunteerism?

No further action (expense or effort) would be needed, as long as teachers remembered to add the tag-line "and this, class,

illustrates the lesson of voluntarism" at the end of each class, and as long as students dutifully raised their hands to "volunteer" an answer in class.

Actually, the savants of Gordon Street are striving to come up with some good examples of learning that incorporate volunteer service and will pass state muster. A couple of early ideas: persuasive writing assignments used to promote community projects and science field trips that involve environmental activism.

While some may object that this plan defeats the spirit of the volunteer mandate, there is already precedent for the idea. Students meet a state "citizenship" standard by taking a written test, not by demonstrating that they are good citizens.

In fact, every other requirement for graduation is based on classwork, attendance and in-school testing. No one has to play American Legion baseball, for example, to pass the physical education requirement.

The volunteer service standard also adds to a growing list of state-mandated hurdles to graduation that places the onus on local school boards, even as their state aid is being cut each month by the Socrateses in residence in the State House.

So let us not brand the Harford plan as deceitful or duplicitous, or a smart-aleck, bad-faith effort.

Instead, let's credit the county educators for displaying the sparkling sophistry that is the crowning achievement of a well-rounded education: They understand all too well how the paper chase works, and how words speak louder than actions in the real world.

But seriously, folks. Lots of youngsters work lots of hours in laudable volunteer efforts. You read about some of them; most labor in anonymity for the self-satisfaction of their contribution, the essence of volunteerism. They are learning the virtues of community service, without any prodding from the classroom.

For some youths, those who must work after school or those with family obligations or disabilities, volunteer service will be more difficult.

But the point is not that any youngster can't find 75 hours during her high school career to satisfy the requirement. The point is that they are doing just what the requirement's rah-rah supporters say they should not be doing: meeting just another course requirement as easily as possible without any enthusiasm. That's not inculcating any virtue except how to cut corners.

There's another significant group of youths who give of their time, labor and money in churches and other religious service. Some tasks may involve visits to shut-ins or cooking for the soup kitchens, but others involve activities of sectarian worship. How is a school system than bans prayer and Bible clubs, and even Christmas symbols, going to sanction that kind of community service?

The county schools could provide some real community service (as many teachers already do) in pointing out projects and ways that their students can volunteer. Too many kids harbor the right instincts to help their community without knowing just how, and without having some interesting options available. That instruction would be more useful than didactic preaching.

Volunteerism, like the quality of mercy, is not strained. It drops as the gentle rain from heaven and is twice blessed, touching the giver and receiver, the Bard would remind us. Above all, it is not a cram course.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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