The late Muhammad Ali once said, "Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth." Many of us know Ali as “the greatest,” but in this simple but profound statement, he is calling us all to a type of greatness that extends beyond ourselves. As a former teacher and teacher educator, I wonder if this is the kind of greatness we promote in our students. We may talk about character education and plan lessons around such desired traits as integrity, honesty and fairness, but then offer the most coveted awards to those with the highest grade-point averages. One such award is admission into college. In this case, SAT or ACT scores, GPA and enriching extra-curricular activities usually count most.
But this may be changing. A January 2016 report, Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions, spells out some of the details. The Making Caring Common project at Harvard was the driving force of this report and the initiative behind it, which was supported by over 80 colleges and universities. According to Richard Weissbourd, co-director of Making Caring Common, it’s time to say “enough” to the achievement pressures and the inequalities that exist in the admissions processes at many colleges.
Both Turning the Tide and Making Caring Common highlight that empathy and caring for others aren’t intended to take the place of academic achievement as a goal. On the contrary, empathy can actually help children learn. Empathy also opens the mind and heart to better appreciate different perspectives and prompts active engagement with diverse groups of people.
Active engagement, as described in Turning the Tide, is about meaningful involvement in work over a sustained period of time that contributes in some way to the community or the common good. The community may be the family, neighborhood, school or another large group of people. Using this understanding, colleges will be looking for the kind of community service that focuses on working with others in a collaborative and mutually respectful way, rather than doing for others, which can be disempowering and even take the form of tokenism. Working alongside peers, community members and other stakeholders to make a park safer, reduce school or neighborhood bullying or solve a local environmental problem are all recommended activities that promote meaningful, collective action.
The idea behind this report and its related recommendations is to help young people realize that, while academic accomplishments are important, other aspects of life also warrant attention and the investment of time and energy. When young people see that colleges reward more than grades, they may be more inclined to appreciate the value of cooperation over competition in their relationships with others. They may begin to realize that there’s more to life than personal success—especially if that success is at the expense of others.
Turning the Tide is also designed to relieve some of the undue academic performance pressures experienced by many students. This pressure tends to take an emotional and ethical toll on students and can lead to depression, delinquency, substance abuse and anxiety, all of which are on the rise in many school communities. The intense focus on personal achievement can also crowd out concerns about others and even lead to cheating.
Leveling the playing field for economically disadvantaged students as it relates to college admission is another focus of Turning the Tide. A system based primarily on academic achievement tends to favor those who can afford the resources to boost such achievement (extra tutoring, AP courses and other types of enrichment programs, 24-hour internet access and so forth). While we want all students to work toward academic excellence, we can also offer additional—and more accessible—avenues for increasing their chances of going to college if they want to. Encouraging and facilitating opportunities for free, purposeful, community-building endeavors can help.
The traditional admissions system also favors those who have the time to engage in many or extended extracurricular activities. But students who care for siblings or sick relatives or otherwise support their households are indeed contributing to the well-being of others. Colleges and universities adhering to the recommendations in Turning the Tide will provide opportunities for applicants to highlight these substantial forms of service, and educators who recommend students should highlight them as well.
“Be the Change,” a task from Perspectives for a Diverse America, is a great resource educators might use for involving middle and high school students in collaborative community engagement. It asks students to work with others to examine a community problem and propose solutions.
For more resources on encouraging students’ active, meaningful engagement with others, see “Service-Learning and Prejudice Reduction” and “Classroom Activists: How Service-Learning Challenges Prejudice.” For more ideas on how to foster caring for others and a concern for the common good, check out “Learning to Be Good” and “Working for the Common Good.”
Wilson is an educational consultant and curriculum writer with a primary interest in connecting children with nature.