Clare Jarmy discusses community service

Posted on 06th April 2020

In an article for TES, Clare Jarmy argues that community service should be good both for benefitting others and also for students.

Character education has provoked lots of discussion in recent years, and encouraging students to serve others is thoroughly embedded into schools’ practice. However, says Clare, we must ask in whose service such work is done. The obvious answer is that it is for those whom the students serve, although students can gain lots from the experience – coming together as a team, valuing a cause, and meeting new people. Moreover, in a climate where juvenile anxiety is rife, helping others is a very good way for students to contribute to their own wellbeing.

But is this really moral? Seen in this way, service to others can be seen as a commodity, provided by schools for the benefit of their students, with the unfortunate a means to that end. Worse, students may only get involved because they get badges or awards, or because it will look good on their CVs. Aristotle, however, saw cajoling as an inevitable part of moral education, and believed that over time we grow to love good things for their intrinsic value, and to have those traits ourselves. So, says Clare, service might have to be selfish in the short term for the sake of growing the good people of the future. But is this expecting enough of students? If Greta Thunberg has shown nothing else, it’s that we should recognise the capacity of young people to believe in causes, take action and collaborate to achieve goals that transcend their daily lives.

Clare concludes: “Maybe it is the word ‘service’ that is the problem, as it implies a relationship that goes only one way – students serving beneficiaries who have no say in what they get out of the relationship. If service can seem patronising it is because it often is, and we must avoid this one-sidedness. Rather, projects must be conceived as partnerships designed to encourage empathy in our students rather than sympathy.  Service is about calling on students to recognise shared humanity with others – something that is in the service of everyone.”

The full article can be seen on the TES website here (subscription may be required).

TES | Clare Jarmy | Bedales community service case studies on Schools Together website