Monday, October 02, 2006

This helps me a lot more than it helps you

By Kathy Seal
If you know a teenager, chances are good you've heard her say at least once that she's working on a community service project "because it looks good to colleges."
This phrase is so common these days that it's enough to make us wonder: Do kids ever do anything for its own sake, because it's interesting, enjoyable or ethical?
The blame rests with our increasingly competitive society and the commercialization of the college culture that perpetrates the harmful myth that only a few of the college "brands" are "the best."
"As a result," says Lloyd Thacker of the Education Conservancy, which works to change the college admissions process, "we've got this extremely exaggerated interest in a small group of schools. There is this huge myth ... that this brand will determine your value in life."
Altruism ... with strings attached
There's something wrong when fourth-graders start announcing their first choice of college, and families talk about the Ivy League every night at dinner. Among many middle-class families, this college admissions pressure is creating a bizarre outlook that harms our children.
For community service projects, many kids are visiting nursing homes or tutoring disadvantaged children not out of basic human kindness, but out of self-interest. Rather than fostering their altruism, we're teaching our kids that goodness isn't its own reward, but that good deeds call for a material prize — a slot in a name brand college. We're leeching their innate humanity.
There's plenty of research that supports this point. In one study, University of Rochester psychologist Edward Deci investigated "What happens when you pay people for an activity they enjoy?" He gave college students pleasurable block-building puzzles to solve. He told half the students they'd get $1 for each solved puzzle. After a while, Deci said the experiment was over and he had to leave the room for a few minutes. The students could do more puzzles, he added casually, or read magazines.
Then he watched them through a one-way mirror. The students who had earned money spent less time playing with the puzzles than those who hadn't received rewards. That's because the money undercut their internal motivation, shifting attention onto the reward itself. Dozens of studies have confirmed this effect.
Kids won't grow up valuing acts of altruism if our social institutions don't encourage charity for its own sake.
'Packaged' students
Ironically, pursuing activities because they "look good for college" isn't the best route to college acceptance, at least at the most selective schools.
Admissions committees can tell the difference between a student who pursues activities to "look good" and one who is truly interested, curious and otherwise self-motivated, says Bruce Poch, vice president and dean of admissions at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif. A kind of Botox-freeze glazes the faces of the "packaged" kid, he explains, but the engaged student radiates excitement and connection to the greater world around her. When kids aren't gaming the system, their personal statements will match the picture painted by counselors and teachers.
"Go find something you want to do," Poch advises high school students. "Find what you like, and then you can tell me about that." If kids try community service and like it, they should follow their inner passion. That's the kind of student, says Poch, that college professors want to teach.
Kathy Seal is coauthor of Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning.

No comments: