Wednesday, March 2, 2011

21st Century Education or service learning in Washington DC

I spent last week at the William Penn House in Washington, DC. My job was to chaperone ten high school seniors involved in a two week experiential learning project combining service and urban living. William Penn House staff had arranged for us to work at Street Church, DC Central Kitchen, Food and Friends, and meet with a representative from Friends Committee on National Legislation. Along with learning to navigate a complex public transportation system, find restaurants that were good and kept within our per diem food allowance, and get along with each other, we did real work for the organizations we went to. My colleague Whitney is with the students the second week.

Seven hours after saying goodbye to the students,  I sat down with my family and we watched the movie " The Social Network". I wonder if my strong reaction to the movie wasn't heightened by my experience in DC the previous week. By the end of the movie, I was sure there were no heroes or even anti-heroes in the entire film. Instead, the best and brightest at our top universities were depicted as cheats, vapid partyers, amoral people out for cheap thrills or scads of easily acquired money. Apparently, young women in these colleges are there to provide young men with willing participants in table dancing, strip poker and to proivde warm bellies for snorting coke.  The adults in the movie were no better, they were largely absent, only showing up as a paranoid svengali type, lawyers and removed academics. Is this the best we have to hope for?

I would like to think the young people I traveled with last week are better than the characters in the movie. Certainly, the past week they have had experiences working alongside men and women whose lifes' journeys are very different from their own. At Street Church one of the their fellow workers was a homeless man, a schizophrenic who had managed to stay on his medication for sixth months and was looking to transition into a half way house. At DC Central Kitchen our supervisor was an imposing women who had worked her way through DCCK's job training program to the point that she was now responsible for breakfast preparation for several thousand meals a day. When we visited with the FCNL representative two of my students shared with the group their vision for serving their communities through creating their own businesses and thus creating jobs. Two other students shared their own sense of satisfaction in the work we had been doing and connecting its necessity with their own academic aspirations. These are ambitious kids, with high academic and professional goals for themselves as future entrepreneurs, marine biologists, economists, public health workers. They have their eye on the prize so to speak. One of the other aha moments may have come when the aspiring marine biologist wondered aloud if learning to lobby Congress wasn't going to be important to his long term career aspirations.

I would like to believe that after these students have experienced the empty, pointless, gross partying that goes on at every college campus, they will fall back on their own well developed skills of better entertainment and relaxation. While here in DC in their free time they chose to go to Arlington Cemetary, play cards with each other, visit the homes of friends, attend basketball games, explore sections of the city we hadn't yet gone to. They were never bored. AND I hope they will remain focused on the purpose filled lives they have each described in some detail that they aspire to living.


  1. Two Comments.

    1. The movie is called "the Social Network", and I hope you recognized the beautiful lower quad of the Johns Hopkins University.

    2. While the movie did portray top universities in a very unflattering light, this is by no means a reflection of the entire student body. It happens, but you would be surprised by how little the majority of students partake in it. There is hope for your students!

  2. Hi Margaret-

    I hear you, and empathize with a lot of what you're saying. They dressed it up a bit in "The Social Network", but the fundamental truths presented there were consistent with life in college, in 1984 as well as today.

    Most people get away from home, on their own, and they go a bit nuts for awhile. Eventually, they get a wake up call, and decide to succeed or fail.

    However, the caste system is alive and intact. If you're rich, play football, or a variety of other things, you've got some advantages right off of the top. Those carry over into the buainess world and government as well. Many times it's not what you know, it's who you know. The secret handshake will get them through their own ruthless incompetence on many an occasion.

    So, what's a person with integrity to do? Keep your real thoughts mostly to yourself, be yourself without sticking out too much, blend in as best you can , and plow on through, with acheivement with integrity as your goals.

    Just my $.02 worth. :)