Are we prepping students for ongoing service?

Parents of Jewish high school students spend an enormous amount of their time and energy wondering whether their children are being properly “prepared” for the rigors of college. However, the discussion I rarely hear is whether these students will continue to be committed to ethical work as they become more independent.

Many students spend years engaged in mandatory and voluntary community service, displaying the values that made them attractive to universities in the first place. But were their transcripts, full of social action projects and community service commitments, merely tools to position themselves to look “better” and more attractive to college admissions offices? Or, have our kids learned to make the fundamental moral commitments that will also “prepare” them for the college campus and beyond?

Colleges, especially the elite Ivies, sub-Ivies and excellent public universities claim to have no formulaic approach to admissions, but they lie. Some kids are more impressive than others, and one of the concrete ways they measure is by asking: Does a young adult express a certain level of maturity by thinking beyond him or herself to the needs of others locally, nationally or globally?

Colleges are certainly on to something, but it has led to a strange moral calculus. Just as an admissions office must measure the intellectual and academic sincerity of a student by the courses they have chosen to take, the admissions officer must now also see an application as a mirror into a child’s heart and soul. Which camp does this child fall into? Will they continue to be the committed, morally excellent individuals they claim to be? Are they involved in their communities just for the potentially cynical motivation of the college entrance game? Or do their commitments represent some deeply developed sense of values and therefore maturity?

The anecdotal evidence I have gathered does not look promising. Colleges are reporting that students come to their campuses burned out and wasted. The very process of admissions and the pressure we put on our children to perform leaves them arriving at these wonderful institutions largely too tired and too cynical to take advantage of all they have to offer.

In one meeting with high school administrators, the director of student life at Stanford stated that the university was considering adding a community service requirement. The jaws of everyone in the room dropped, and someone asked the question we were all wondering: “You mean you have the best and the brightest students in the nation coming to your campus, and you need such a requirement?” His answer was deeply disturbing. “These students are so exhausted from their high school experience, spinning their wheels to get into Stanford, that all they want to do is go to class and party. They have little interest in anything else.”

My own experiences with Milken Community High School students reporting back are more positive. Many of them e-mail and write that they have found niches at their colleges and universities for continuing the work in which they were involved in high school. They are not only connected to Jewish student groups and institutions on campus, but appear to be involved in a broad range of social action and justice projects as well. Some join sororities and fraternities that have strong traditions of community service, some get involved through Hillel and Israel action, and some are engaged on a very local level with homelessness, poverty projects and tutoring in disadvantaged schools.

The talmudic axiom, mitzvah goreret mitzvah, “a good deed leads to a good deed,” frames much of this discussion. Does it mean that by doing one mitzvah you will be inspired to do another and then another and yet another? Or is it more of a utilitarian sentiment, that by doing good works good things will happen to you?

The philosophical implications of these two worldviews have filled thousands of pages of rabbinic texts and sources. Do we want to live in a world of na?ve selflessness where our expectations of goodness are mostly turned inward, or do we want a world of moral balance sheets, a direct, beneficial return on our investments of kindness and sacrifice?

I believe we have done a credible job in our Jewish communities and schools of creating continuity with our children as they go off into the world. But a disturbing comment I hear parents and school leaders say to our kids as they start college is, “You’ve worked hard, now you can go off to college and really enjoy yourself.”

One of the mindful ways that we can measure our success and make sure that we are not sending confusing messages (or the wrong message) is to not ask our young adults how they are “doing” at school, post high school, but in what ways have you gotten involved? What organizations and causes have you put some of your spare time to? What are your larger commitments?

If we have truly taught our children that being a moral player in the world has a value in and of itself, our kids will be waiting for us to ask them such questions.

Jason Ablin is director of curriculum and integration at Milken Community High School.