By Alex Kuczmarski
Service is a central component of the University experience. We eat, drink, sleep and breathe service, embedding it in every fiber of University culture. Students are known for igniting change, for having a positive impact on communities. We send students on missionary and Habitat for Humanity trips around the world. We bring together nearly 5,000 volunteers to assist our neighbors every year for the St. Thomas of Villanova Day of Service, and we organize countless groups to volunteer in Philadelphia.
However, I still believe that the structure of service on this campus needs to be analyzed in the hopes that its focus can be redirected.
Immanuel Kant argues that the morality of an action can be determined based on its underlying motivation. I believe that this philosophy is worth considering and applying to how we do service here.
We are successful in sending students out into the world to do some good, but are they actually producing that good? What is the relationship between the good that is produced and the motivation behind the action? I have formulated three basic principles that should be adhered to in the development of a service organization on a college campus. I will use my experience as a RUIBAL leader as a case study for these principles. I believe that by reevaluating how service is promoted and organized on this campus using the three principles, service will be more effective and genuine in its endeavors.
First we must ask ourselves: What is the purpose of service? What should motivate us to serve? The ideological answer would most likely have something to do with helping the less fortunate. Try this experiment yourself; ask the next person you see what he or she believes to be the reason for service. The answer will most likely be a selfless one. I can almost guarantee that the person will not say, “for the servers to meet other servers and bond.’”
Although this is certainly a positive byproduct, it should not be the intention behind service. Unfortunately, I have found that service opportunities on campus are often advertised using this enticing offer. By serving, you will meet others like yourself and you will benefit. This approach inadvertently makes the motivation to serve a selfish one, which I believe hinders the service’s ends: to create a good specific to the service site, and to create an environment in which both the servers and the served are able to mutually grow.
Service organizations on college campuses should be developed and promoted in a way that ensures the desired good is created to the greatest extent that can be reasonably expected, the virtue of generosity is fostered and individual rights are respected. I believe that if these three principles are followed, the intended motivation behind service will become clear and students will be more genuine and effective in serving. I will now delve into these principles further.
It is not ridiculous to expect a service organization to be designed in a way that produces its desired good to the greatest possible extent. I do not believe many of you will have an objection to this principle. However, I also believe that the motivation behind students’ decision to serve affects its good. The manner in which a service organization promotes itself affects this motivation. Therefore, the method of promotion utilized by an organization should be evaluated because it has an effect on the good produced.
RUIBAL is often promoted in a way that appeals to the social survival instincts of freshmen. In other words, the focus is placed on the friendships that will result from dedicating three hours a week to RUIBAL. As a freshman, it is a necessity to make as many friends as possible early on in the year. RUIBAL knows this, so when its members talk to freshmen (myself included), the discussion often falls on the social benefits of the experience.
Unfortunately, this type of promotion opens the door for selfish motivations to be the driving force behind student service, which, as I have seen, affects the good of the service. I would argue that the good of RUIBAL is the relationships that develop between the servers and the served. The students at my particular service site, North Light Community Center, are in desperate need of consistency and reliable relationships with role models they can trust. It is an unfortunate fact that most of the students at North Light do not experience this consistency and trust at home. However, this need is the reason we send a group of 10 freshmen RUIBAL participants there every weekday.
This goal is infringed upon when the freshmen participate in RUIBAL with the intention of developing relationships with other freshmen instead of with the younger students they are serving. In my experience, both from freshman and sophomore year, the servers spend more time learning about each other than they do learning about those they are serving. The freshmen do not focus on the good, so the good is affected. The reason for this misguided focus should be studied.
In Andre Comte-Sponville’s essay on generosity, he defines the virtue as that which frees us from our selfish impulses. “Generosity is both the awareness of one’s freedom (or of oneself as free and responsible) and the firm resolution to make good use of that freedom,” he said. Since generosity is a virtue, it is something to be desired.
However, we prevent potential servers from becoming generous when we appeal to their selfish human nature. In a sense, we show that we do not have enough trust in others to engage in service for the right reasons, to experience an internal revolution that results in the selflessness of generosity, when we appeal to their selfish ambitions. While generosity should free us from ourselves, the promotion of service on this campus binds us to ourselves.
Finally, a service organization should respect individual rights. This principle is tightly tied to Libertarian thought. Jan Narveson, a classic Libertarian, argues that there are too many ways of looking at any charitable act to make it an obligation. Students who feel obligated to serve due to its social implications may have different views concerning what that service means to them and whether or not it’s worth doing.
Therefore, the current model of service promotion is insensible, for not all of those socially obligated to engage in service will be completely invested in the act of serving, and will therefore not be as genuine or productive as those who are.