Maryland students are learning what it means to be citizens

Kathleen kennedy Townsend

September 17, 1993|By Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

THESE words, spoken by one of the great Roman patriots and orators, give voice to the idea that the term "citizen" is a title of honor -- a mark of distinction earned by those intent on keeping Rome a republic and free. Citizens willingly served in the defense of the country and participated actively in the debates and issues of the day.

This month, Maryland becomes the first and only state in which 75 hours of citizenship service or its educational equivalent are required for graduation from high school.

A boy who might never have imagined that he could teach a younger handicapped child to count will have the chance to experience the satisfaction that comes from such an encounter. A girl who has never visited the Chesapeake Bay may one day go with her class to plant sea grass along its shores. And a ninth-grade class may decide to petition the legislature on behalf of homeless families to whom they have served a hot meal in a shelter.

The state Board of Education enacted the service requirement in 1992 and was criticized in some quarters. Members of the state legislature tried to have the requirement overturned because they felt it was not "education." Some challenged it for limiting students' freedom. A top official of the state teachers union called it "slave labor," and a piece in the Wall Street Journal argued that it violated child labor laws. To be meaningful, these people said, service should be voluntary.

Citizen service is neither slavery nor child labor. The student government associations in seven of the largest Maryland subdivisions voted in favor of it. They argued that the service requirement is a rare opportunity, granted all too seldom to children, to become a vital, instrumental part of their communities. As many of the students themselves testified at the hearings, if someone or something hadn't gotten them to serve in the first place -- a parent, a charismatic teacher, an honor society or confirmation requirement -- they would never have known what pleasure service to others can be.

Local school districts have developed their own citizenship service courses and programs. In some schools, students may do their service without leaving the classroom; they might write a play about the difficulties associated with teen-age pregnancy or conduct peer mediation sessions to reduce school violence. Or they can record books on tape for the blind or make toys for homeless children. Students will have substantial input into choosing their service projects. Opportunities for students to reflect on their service -- a vital component in educating a citizen -- will be built in.

When possible, book learning will be meshed with community learning, and activities will be integrated into a school's curriculum: testing a stream for chemicals as part of a science course, making toys for foster children in industrial arts, writing a play on drug abuse in English class. Students will be more inspired to improve their academic skills so they'll be more effective in their service activities.

Children grow up today knowing their rights. But they should also know they have responsibilities that, though less well-defined, are nevertheless vital for them to experience. One of those responsibilities is to contribute to their community's common good.

In school, they may study civics. They may learn about the Bill of Rights and the separation of powers. They may even come across Thomas Jefferson's admonition that all citizens owe a term of service to their country. But until they have a chance to participate in the ways that democracy demands, they can never truly take to heart the lessons they are learning in class.

Several years ago, I went to talk to a ninth-grade class in a blue-collar neighborhood about the idea of student service. I asked the students what they would do if they could change anything in their school or community. There was a long silence. I asked a second time. Finally, a girl stood up in the back of the room. "Mrs. Townsend," she said, "you see, we've been taught to be seen and not heard."

As I left the classroom I wondered whether these students dared not dream of accomplishment out of fear that they might fail. To ward off disappointment, were they avoiding not only action but even dreaming of what could be better?

Yet once involved in service, children's confidence increases. Alethea Kalandros is an example of a child whose life was changed by service work. When she was a freshman at Chesapeake High School she missed 70 days of classes. But as a sophomore she was lucky enough to have a teacher who would not give up on her, and who convinced her to visit the School for the Blind. Several days each week Alethea helped children. That year, she missed only two days of school. I remember hearing her explain why her school attendance had improved: "I learned that I had something to offer."

Student service can weave the loose threads of a community together. Working on a common project will do more to unite people than endless discussions of tolerance. Service toward a common goal can bridge chasms that otherwise keep us apart.

Children aren't born knowing how to be citizens. Like learning to read or add or throw a ball, citizenship is something that should be taught and nurtured in school. When Thomas Jefferson wrote that everyone had the right to pursue happiness, he was not referring to private happiness but to the ability to be citizens. After all, he helped foment a revolution in which representation was vital. If democracy is to remain vital, we in the older generation must teach the young how to participate.

Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is executive director of the Maryland Student Service Alliance, a public/private partnership that promotes youth service. She wrote this for Newsday.

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