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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Within the past academic year, three brilliant college students committed suicide because of intense academic and extracurricular pressures. At the University of Pennsylvania, track star Madison Holleran leapt to her death and Elvis Hatcher hung himself. Subsequently, NYU student and artist Rowen Altenburger was discovered at the Bryant Park Hotel after taking her own life.

All across America, young people are in crisis as they parade themselves on social media and chase superficial definitions of success. Simultaneously, Millennials' civic engagement is lower than that of previous generations, according to Jean Twenge's study in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, because they "are focusing more on money, image, and fame." While they are more likely to volunteer during high school, it is to fulfill a graduation requirement rather than because of an intrinsic sense of civic duty. In order to save our youth, we should redefine achievement to include service, because it leads to connection, perspective and -- most importantly -- well-being.

Stepping Off the Treadmill

We can start by lessening the importance we place on measurable success. I recently watched Vicki Abeles' documentary Race to Nowhere, in which the most heartbreaking moment occurred when 13-year-old Devon Marvin killed herself because of a low grade on a math test. While the subsequent discussion centered on the need to reevaluate the impossible expectations forced upon children, I wondered how realistic this is in a culture where winning is everything. Clearly, there is something terribly wrong when kids quantify their precious lives with an exam grade. Sadly, the phrase "race to nowhere" is also an apt metaphor for Madison, Elvis, and Rowen.

Furthermore, let's accept and even honor failure as a normal part of growing up. According to The New York Post, Madison's dad, Jim Holleran, said that his daughter "had lost confidence" when suddenly surrounded by competition. I always thought that a loss of confidence was expected when one started college, but in a society that worships at the cult of self-esteem, it is taboo. Anna Deavere Smith, the superb actress, playwright, and professor, has said, "Confidence is overrated. Give doubt a try." Presumably, that's when you step out of your comfort zone, struggle, and ultimately grow. However, this usually necessitates lagging in the race, an unpopular notion these days. With all our talk of grit, you'd think we'd also embrace the obstacles that beget grit.

Joe O'Shea, in his book Gap Year: How Delaying College Changes People in Ways the World Needs, advocates for stepping off the "treadmill" from high school to college by taking a year off to volunteer in a developing country. According to O'Shea, students grow when they engage with ideas that are different than their own. They also develop "passion, purpose, and perspective."

Sounds like the perfect prescription for all youth -- from those whose only purpose seems to be snapping selfies to those with too much purpose -- who perhaps should be pointed in a more meaningful direction, thereby gaining a healthier perspective on life.

The Win-Win of Civic Engagement

In previous generations, there was more of an expectation, as well as more opportunities, to serve the nation. Interestingly, according to a survey of returned Peace Corps Volunteers, 94 percent said they would sign on again, and 93 percent said they would recommend the experience to others. Anne Stadler, who spent two years in Bolivia after graduating college, said that it was the best thing she'd ever done. Additionally, 75 percent of respondents said that the Peace Corps helped their careers -- a stellar example of doing well by doing good.

Furthermore, Tufts University's Peter Levine studied the relationship between civic engagement and "psychosocial well-being" among students and concluded that people are happier if (among other things) "their own daily activities are useful to and valued by society," and they have a "sense of belonging to, and comfort and support from, a community." Therefore, he believes that civic engagement programs can boost happiness.

I agree. In 2005, I left the entertainment industry to join The New York City Teaching Fellows, and spent four years teaching English in an impoverished high school. Though my job lacked status and was a big step down in salary, those moments when I engendered a love of reading or watched someone open a college acceptance letter -- the first in their family to attend university -- were blissful.

Optimistically, there is some movement toward making service a valued rite of passage. City Year is dedicated to transforming the graduation pipeline by placing recent college graduates in at-risk schools. Furthermore, The Franklin Project is committed to establishing a service system that engages at least one million young adults annually in a demanding year of full-time national service, as evidenced by last month's Gettysburg Summit. Additionally, all Ivy League universities now endorse gap years for interested students, according to Joe O'Shea. Also, Tufts' newly launched 1+4 Program will make it financially possible for interested students to do a year of full-time domestic or international public service before they begin their four years on campus.

Let’s encourage Millennials to engage in service, thereby contributing to society and to their own well-being in immeasurable ways.

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Comments (11) Sign in or register to comment Subscribe to comments via RSS

Florina Rodov's picture
Florina Rodov
Author & Entrepreneur

Thank you for weighing in on my piece. Had you read it carefully, you would have seen that nowhere in the essay did I say that suicidal ideation begins in college. Recall the part where I discuss a 13-year-old who killed herself because of unbearable pressure. Thank you for the information re: Tufts and other colleges. However, your argument would be a lot stronger if you included your actual name and a photo, instead of calling yourself "nwbl." If you choose to identify yourself, I'd be happy to continue the discussion. Otherwise, I'm done. Thanks.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

This year I witnessed a friend of mine's son receive Eagle Scout status. The ceremony was on Battleship NJ, right under the gun turrets. Pretty amazing venue, but what was more impressive was the list of civic accomplishments completed by this young man and respect and honor shown by all in attendance. He's something special, but you'll never know it by his humble demeanor. He's happy. He should be. He's tasted hard work, felt the blisters on his hands and feet, sensed the doubt in himself, and still succeeded. In civic duty, the "process" gives you the happiness, not really the outcome like winning in sports. I stopped playing competitive tennis because I lost that fire to win. If I didn't win, I wasn't happy. It took ten years for me to return to tennis just for fun and exercise.

There's so much value in civic duty, but it's not the only route for serious hard work, doubt, failure, and then the rise to success. Happiness. When I write, I'm happy just to have written!! -- whether it's read by just the world or me.

Thanks for the post.


Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program

I'm getting ready to send my kids off to summer camp for three weeks. It's expensive and I miss them like crazy, but the reason we do it is because the camp has such a lovely focus on leadership through service and balanced living overall. I think that service helps kids to gain perspective on what really matters. Creating a balanced view of themselves as complete people helps them to realize that failure isn't a permanent condition and that always, always, always there's someone who has it worse.

Florina Rodov's picture
Florina Rodov
Author & Entrepreneur

Thank you for the post, Laura. I'm so glad that your kids will be going to a camp like this, rather than one that adds to the "success at all costs" mentality. Have you read the recent Harvard study that said children value success over kindness because their parents do? I'm glad that's not how it is in your house. Have a great weekend.

nwbl's picture

Enrollment management. The Tufts brand. Words like gap year and service learning don't deceive everyone. Evade the issue by bringing up an irrelevant issue like poster anonymity. Not impressive.

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

I agree completely, Florina, that our kids' well being, self-esteem and future happiness depend on them feeling as if they matter, as if they can contribute, as if they can make a difference in a world that judges them on their latest selfies. A few years ago I discovered Books of Hope (now E-luminate - http://www.e-luminate.org/index.php) and was impressed with its mission to empower our students to bring literacy to the most vulnerable children in Uganda. I showed my students some clips from the "Invisible Children" documentary, which lit such a fire of empathy, compassion and what-can-we-do-now? in them that I knew we were on to something great. They dove into the project with fervor, writing, illustrating and binding children's books for the children they had just discovered needed their help. They were rewarded a few months later with actual pictures of the kids in Uganda holding the books we had made. Many students (and parents) said it was one of the most powerful school projects they had ever done.

I wish there was a way to get kids hooked into service learning without requiring it, though. I think that will affect the value of the experience; if they have to serve, are they really serving? Or are they just checking it off a list so they can move on to what they really want to do? It's not easy, but I think it's well worth our efforts to try to bring a variety of service opportunities to our students throughout their school years so they can find the one that lights their I-can-help-therefore-I-matter fire.

Thanks for this thoughtful post! Adds a valuable wrinkle to my back-to-school planning.


Florina Rodov's picture
Florina Rodov
Author & Entrepreneur

Thank you for the kind response to my post, Laura. I will take a look at E-Luminate and at the "Invisible Children" documentary. Excellent point about the importance of getting kids hooked into service learning without making it a requirement. How do we make civic engagement an organic part of learning? Worthwhile for parents and educators to figure out...

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

"Authentic Learning Experiences," a book by Dayna Laur, offers lots of examples of authentic PBL opportunities, each starting with a challenging investigation that seeks to solve a problem in the students' own communities. I think that direct link to problems around them can help students see ways that they can help others. (disclaimer: the author featured my students' work with Books of Hope in this book ;-) http://www.amazon.com/Authentic-Learning-Experiences-Real-World-Project-...


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