Embracing Ethics

Why Redwood needs to rethink its service requirements

March 25, 2022

Since I was nine, I’ve embraced the opportunity to engage in service and forge impact. Whether obsessively juggling a soccer ball to raise funds for kids with cancer or speaking at schools nationwide about the benefits of youth in philanthropy, I’ve become convinced of my capacity for societal contribution. Through these efforts, I’ve been exposed to the best elements of collaboration and social partnership. I’ve witnessed how families and communities support their own when they face unthinkable challenges. Although this exposure is not a universal experience for all students, I believe it can be.   

It is time for our public education system to include required coursework on ethical development and exploration of personal values, creating a foundation for meaningful philanthropic and civic engagement and, in turn, a sense of purpose for teens like me. William Damon, a professor of education at Stanford University, defines purpose as “a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self.” He and his colleagues have found extensive benefits to adolescents of cultivating purpose and exploring values — enabling them to foster meaningful contributions to their world. Developing a values-driven approach to civic engagement and societal contribution within our Redwood community would be a path for students to discover their roles in the world and begin the process of long-term contribution. 

Like all too many high schools, we have a service requirement for graduation: completing of at least 10 hours of community service during freshman year Social Issues classes. Typical efforts include face-painting at a local event for kids or cleaning up Stinson beach for an afternoon. While these are great ways to spend some time, how meaningful, really, are such efforts? Do they require any self-reflection, understanding of personal values, negotiating ethical dilemmas, research, problem-solving, interpersonal engagement or sustained effort of any kind? As it turns out, the impact of mandatory service hours on sustained fundraising efforts is questionable. According to a study on the effects of compulsory service requirements conducted by the Psychology Department at the University of Northern Colorado, extrinsic service-motivators, such as a graduation requirement, result in students having fewer intentions of volunteering in the future. In contrast, students with an intrinsic drive for service and purpose, based on their internal moral compass, which education can be foster, will create sustained commitments to giving back for the right reasons. 

Our curriculum should include substantial coursework on ethics and self-discovery of one’s values and desired purpose. The educational goals would include: cultivating necessary skills to engage in the world in meaningful ways, providing accessibility to adult mentorship and encouraging connections between teens and their community and nonprofit organizations. This coursework would involve discussions about issues students wish to address in their community and beyond, reflection on the pros and cons of various political or social movements and evaluation of the effectiveness of current policies and organizations combatting societal problems. Teachers could also invite guest speakers and ultimately develop a capstone project for students to apply their knowledge and forge change.   

As a society, we emphasize on finding meaning and purpose after high school, which is a worthy pursuit. But why wait for adulthood? Damon and his colleagues have found that adolescents who are encouraged to seek purpose through explicit education or other modes of guidance are happier, more motivated and more emotionally grounded than those without a sense of purpose. Further, according to an article in the Hechinger Report, a platform covering equity and innovation in education, teens with a sense of purpose reported lower levels of depression, lower rates of binge drinking and drug use and overall healthier habits, including regular exercise and a strong commitment to academics. The benefits of seeking purpose through ethical reflection are evident, and Redwood has the opportunity to facilitate this sort of personal development through its curriculum. 

Patrick Cook-Degan, Founder of Project Wayfinder, an organization engaging adolescents in purposeful educational paths, spoke with thousands of high school students about their educational experiences regarding service. He discussed the importance of internal motivators.

“Students who show a sense of purpose have a deeply developed intrinsic motivation to achieve a goal or take part in an activity. This means they are not motivated to achieve something simply because they can … or because they get rewarded or recognized for it. Rather, they do it because they have a deep internal interest in pursuing it — and derive pleasure from the process,” Cook-Degan said.  

This critical intrinsic motivation is typically not developed in a vacuum; students need to be guided along a path of exploration and education in philanthropy and ethics, much like they are guided to study mathematics or history. Theoretically, mandated community service hours are a decent place to start. But, we should shift to a more sustainable, ethics-driven approach, encouraging students to explore the changes they want to see in the world.  Our Social Issues classes could easily implement this ethics-based curriculum. Rather than simply requiring service hours, we can dig deeper and engage in meaningful conversations with our peers regarding real-world problems and discuss the many ways students can use their passions for the greater good.  

High school is the perfect time to capture students’ interests and help them develop ethical drivers for engagement with causes outside of themselves. Community service is more than just a superficial bonus on your college applications. It’s time for parents and educators to embrace uncharted paths to purpose as much as achievement outcomes. We need to shift our educational culture from the idea that pursuit of meaning and school success are mutually exclusive and acknowledge that the former is as essential to scaffold as the latter. It’s time we all appreciate how much we, as teens, have to offer. Even while we pursue high-Grade Point Averages and standardized test scores, we need encouragement to inquire, explore and develop our own passions, interests and purpose.

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