Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Mandatory Year of Service: Thoughts on "Class Dismissed" by Walter Kirn, NYT

I hated high school. With a passion. So, by sophomore year I'd worked the system in such a way that I could leave campus every day before lunch. I spent the afternoons working at a hair salon (earning work-study credits) and nights taking classes at the community college. But it wasn't enough. I wanted OUT so I doubled up on classes, took summer courses, weekend intensive workshops and managed to graduate a semester early.

Finally free of high school I hopped on a plane and moved across the country to New York City. I was seventeen.

In his article "Class Dismissed," Walter Kirn posits that we should do away with the 12th grade entirely because it's become a "year of licensed irresponsibility." Is it true? I wasn't really there... Perhaps it would be best to offer students a choice the summer before senior year. Or ...

Could we possibly require a mandatory year of service before entry to college? Imagine hoards of 17-year-olds volunteering at elementary school, hospitals, farms (see "Plow Shares" - same issue NY Times Magazine), convalescent homes, and appropriate non profit organizations around the country. Can you imagine entering college after spending a year discovering how your actions help a person, community or even the world? Would this experience have changed the directions taken in university? Would NOT going to college become a viable option leading to long term, valuable, working posts? Would apprenticeships come back into vogue?

I kind of love the idea. What do you think?


  1. Sounds like a wonderful idea, but we need to insure the privileged weren't able to duck out they did when we had the draft, certainly many of them would benefit most from this type of experience.

  2. To me it's two separate issues—axing senior year, and doing a year of service.

    I see the former question in a big picture way, as does the Gates Foundation. Those young Danes and Finns are getting a head start; our economy suffers for it. In my high school there were several kids who started taking classes at Tulane University during senior year, and at least one or two kids who were admitted to college after 11th grade. But they were audacious exceptions; they should have been the norm, at least among those bright, inquisitive nerds who would be so inclined if nudged in that direction.

    The latter issue, a year of service, I've long thought should be at least a tradition if not a requirement, but one which would entitle a student to free college tuition. College tuition should be free anyway, the way California's used to be; the year of service would weed out the goofballs.

  3. I guess I had a very different experience in high school. In eight grade I'd decided that I wanted to fly. More specifically, I wanted to Fly Navy. :) That meant taking advantage of every academic, extra-curricular opportunity that I could. I did. It was a great ride. What I didn't do was make it to Annapolis. (Thank you DODMRB).

    Dan has a point about tradition vs. requirement. The last thing we need is our government telling us one more thing we have to do for it in our lives, on its timeline. Volunteerism is something completely different. I'm all for that.

    What would have been best for me would have been to go somewhere solo for about a year (missions, volunteer program, whatever) immediately following college, but a nice job and marriage called first.

  4. My senior year was great BECAUSE I was able to do whatever I wanted. Every class but one was an independent study course and most were in art and music. The other was a creative writing class and I left an hour early every day.

    As far as the "service" thing goes... Nah. They aren't likely to "learn" by that, I'd think. Teens are narcissistic bastards. They'll just learn how doing mandatory service affects the arrangement of their social schedules.

  5. When I was in high school, we had to do a senior project, which many times involved some sort of service project. I like the idea of taking a year to do service. It might make kids appreciate college a little more, instead of taking the first two years to mess around and party.


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