After School Citizens and Virtual Diversity: Harvard Report Comes Up Short

Turning the Tide, a report by the Making Caring Common Project at Harvard, reminds high school educators and parents that the common good is good, and that we should care about whether our kids care for others.

Woe that our society needs such reminders. But sometimes we do, and I encourage parents and educators to read the report. It contains good guidance on how to help students be less self-centered and status-driven and more empathic and community-minded.

However, I also encourage readers to note the ways this report falls short of addressing the root causes of the problems it hopes to help solve.

For instance, the report asserts how important it is for adolescents to collaborate with people across race and class divides. But the lead author, Richard Weissbourd, seems to accept that our school communities are segregated and conveniently allows for diversity to be experienced "virtually."

Weissbourd writes that students should work on local challenges in "racially, economically, culturally, politically, or religiously diverse groups," because this helps kids "bump up against their biases and presumptions." But then he says that "if students live in homogeneous communities, high schools might encourage them to engage in diverse groups virtually."

Really? So if wealthy kids in one school find it challenging to authentically collaborate with the less fortunate kids from across town, maybe at least they can Skype? This seems the very kind of gaming the system that the report hopes to discourage, and it seems to diminish the severity of the problem. We're talking about segregation here, a social ill of huge proportions, and the remedy will not be a Google Hangout.

That said, no matter the demographics of the community we live in, our young people should be raised to have a sense of service, citizenship, and authentic concern for others. The Harvard report is right that schools can do a better job cultivating these traits. Unfortunately, schools will never truly address this problem if we continue to view service and citizenship as merely extra-curricular pursuits.

The problem with service learning in schools is that it's too often an after school afterthought. The report reinforces this, arguing that "ethical engagement" and "intellectual engagement" are equally important - but maintaining the flawed perception that they are separate spheres.

A lot of badness gets born in a world where ethics and intellect are compartmentalized. Schools must embody the notion heart and mind are deeply intertwined. Because ultimately our goal here is to cultivate citizens whose intellectual and professional endeavors are infused with concern for others. We want bankers who do their derivatives not floating in abstraction but grounded in a sense of themselves as citizens. We want emergency managers who decide about drinking water informed by empathy for those who will drink it. We want law enforcement officers with more than a virtual sense of the diversity of their communities.

Schools that effectively cultivate these traits are those that see service and citizenship imperatives as drivers of the curriculum, as essential contexts for learning academic skills.

Weissbourd calls for "high schools to powerfully hold up, expect, and honor in young people a more ethical and meaningful way of leading a life." As a high school principal, I accept the charge. But let's up the ante. Here's how:

Make more ambitious demands. Push secondary schools to infuse problem solving in pursuit of the common good into our daily classrooms, not merely into after school activities. It's possible. I have teacher colleagues, this year, who have taken extra-curriculars and pushed them down into the school day, allowing for more in-depth reflection, learning and relationships. The Spanish club's annual trip abroad is now embedded in a class that is studying foreign aid, partnering with an international NGO, and wrestling with whether literacy initiatives are an effective way for the global north to support development in the south. Another teacher has taken the work of a service club and imbedded it in a class that is actively organizing blood drives and working with a camp for kids with cancer. An English teacher is cultivating youth radio journalists, reporting on topics like climate change and education funding. And our Health teacher leads a film class in which students to turn the cameras on important public health concerns in our community: teen pregnancy, addiction, depression. Difficult and sometimes taboo subjects are now opportunities for self-reflection and for connecting with often marginalized people in our community.

If schools are intentional about this stuff, citizenship and service can be integral aspects of the daily curriculum, providing relevance and meaningful context for learning academic skills. It is important that higher ed assert the value of this kind of teaching.

Include the teachers of teachers. The list of colleges endorsing this report includes a few schools of education. A subsequent phase of the project should include many. If we are talking about school reform, we're talking about teachers - and the teachers of teachers.

This conversation about the common good and secondary schooling is in part about what kind of high schoolers enter college as freshmen, but it is also about what kind of graduates walk out as the next generation of educators.

Build a bigger tent. More public sector educators must be at the table, and this project is well-positioned to help bridge public and private school divides. For instance, the report has the St. Marks School of Southborough, MA, on the list of endorsing institutions. Next time, why not invite educators from neighboring Marlborough or Framingham to join the conversation? Free and reduced lunch rates in Southborough, are at 3%. In the two other towns it's nearly 50% and rising. Why not bring together educators from these very different social settings and then discuss how diverse groups of young people from this region might collaboratively address local challenges? St. Marks School and Marlborough High School are only 4 miles apart. This is the deeper work.

If the Making Caring Common project moves in such directions, we could see real progress. The spirit of this project is important, and the implications here for teaching, learning and the common good could be profound. Could be.

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