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Academic Service Learning
California's Call to Service


07/31/1999: Altruism 101: An LA Times Editorial

Submitted by: Erika Freihage
Los Angeles Times Editorials
July 31, 1999
Kathry M. Downing, Publisher
Michael Parks, Editor
Janet Clayton, Editor of the Editorial Pages


Gov. Gray Davis' request earlier this month that California colleges make community service a graduation requirement is unassailable in principle. What could be wrong with teaching students, as the governor puts it, that "a service ethic . . . [has] lasting value in California"?

However, Davis, who wants the plan put into practice by fall of 2000, left the details of its implementation to the faculty of the state's University of California, California State University and community college systems. Some officials who oppose requiring community service are raising concerns, but these can be resolved:

*Some professors are pointing to a recent study by the American Psychological Society that found that students who are forced to volunteer -- especially those who are not willing or ready -- will probably be put off from volunteering later in life.

However, that study -- focusing on college students in Minnesota who were required to fulfill a "work experience requirement" -- concluded that "only a minority of students . . . were negatively impacted" by the mandate. Numerous other studies have shown that community service programs greatly increase students' civic-mindedness so long as they are carefully designed. The key to success is ensuring that students are able to choose projects that relate to their course work and enable them to do good in visible ways.

Models of such programs already exist in the Cal State system. In Cal State Dominguez Hills' "Hope to Grow" program, for example, undergraduates studying education have shown great enthusiasm teaching third-graders in disadvantaged schools.

*Some critics of Davis' notion say community service might be fine for students interested in teaching and other civic-minded work but it won't interest students in more rarefied fields like microbiology.

Think again. Programs like Cal State Northridge's Center for Community Service have given science majors well-chosen opportunities to help communities solve environmental problems. Last year, for instance, students scooped water from low-lying gutters and puddles after heavy rains in Pacoima to determine whether water was contaminated by leakage from septic tanks. Their work benefited public health while helping them practice book-learned knowledge in the real world.

According to a national survey of American college freshmen that UCLA's Alexander Astin conducted last year, college students are showing a greater interest in community service than at any other time since Astin's survey began in the 1960s. Davis' plan could give them the opportunity to exercise that interest.

State leaders will have to give colleges sufficient funding to make the governor's idea work, especially since higher education resources are already strained in preparing for an expected 500,000-student enrollment surge over the next decade. But if properly implemented, a community service program could reap a valuable return in a new generation of civically minded citizens.

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Last Updated: May 06, 2016