Should Student Volunteerism be Voluntary?

Alan Singer, Hofstra University

     In his November 19, 1863, address at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards (NCSS, 2013) expands on this notion of democracy as government by the people by specifically endorsing student activism. According to the framework:

“Civics is not limited to the study of politics and society; it also encompasses participation in classrooms and schools, neighborhoods, groups, and organizations . . . In civics, students learn to contribute appropriately to public processes and discussions of real issues. Their contributions to public discussions may take many forms, ranging from personal testimony to abstract arguments. They will also learn civic practices such as voting, volunteering, jury service, and joining with others to improve society. Civics enables students not only to study how others participate, but also to practice participating and taking informed action themselves” (p. 31).

     The NCSS C3 framework is also rooted in John Dewey’s progressive educational philosophy that is concerned with the need to educate people for life in a democratic society. Key concepts for Dewey were experience, freedom, community, and “habits of mind.” Dewey believed that there was an “organic connection between education and experience”; that effective teachers are able to connect the subject matter to the existing experience of students and then expand and enrich their lives with new experiences.

     According to Dewey, students learn from the full spectrum of their experiences in school, not just the specific thing they are studying in class. They learn from what they are studying, how they are studying, who they are studying with, and how they are treated. In racially segregated or academically tracked classes, students learn that some people are better than others. In teacher-centered classrooms, they learn that some people possess knowledge and others passively receive it. When teachers have total control over classrooms, even when they are benevolent or entertaining, students learn to accept authoritarianism. When schools remain isolated from communities and exist to rank and stratify the student body, students learn to seek individual rewards and ignore the needs of others; values that are the antithesis of democratic citizenship.

     During his career, John Dewey continually examined the experiences educators need to create for students so they become active participants in preserving and expanding government of, by, and for the people. For Dewey, the exercise of freedom in democratic  societies always involves education. He identifies freedom with “power to frame purposes” or achieve individual and social goals. This kind of freedom requires a probing, critical, disciplined “habit of mind.” It includes intelligence, judgment, and self-control – qualities students never acquire in classrooms where they are subject to external controls and are forced to remain silent. In schools that use a Deweyan approach, students engage in long-term thematic group projects, where they learn to collectively solve problems, and classrooms become democratic communities where “things gain meaning by being used in a shared experience or joint action.” If Dewey is right, students only learn about democracy and the values of citizenship in classrooms where they experience them. They only learn to take responsibility for society, when schools engage them in taking responsibility.

     Because of my understanding of Lincoln’s view of democracy and Dewey’s ideas on learning, I am arguing, in a way, against the basic concept of volunteerism, that it be voluntary. I am suggesting that active involvement in community affairs by students must be a basic educational requirement and integrated throughout the social studies curriculum. But I want to take this proposal even one step further.

     Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator, was born in Recife in northeastern Brazil where his ideas about education developed in response to military dictatorship, enormous social inequality, and widespread adult illiteracy. As a result, his primary pedagogical goal was to provide the world’s poor and oppressed with educational experiences that make it possible for them to take control over their own lives. Freire shared John Dewey’s desire to stimulate students to become “agents of curiosity” in a “quest for . . . . the ‘why’ of things” and his belief that education provides possibility and hope for the future of society. But he believed that these can only be achieved when students are engaged in explicitly critiquing social injustice and actively organizing to challenge oppression.

     For Freire, education is a process of continuous group discussion that enables people to acquire collective knowledge they can use to change society. The role of the teacher includes asking questions that help students identify problems facing their community, working with students to discover ideas that explain their life experiences, and encouraging analysis of prior experiences and of society as the basis for new academic understanding and social action.

     This concept of active education as preparation for political activism and active citizenship is not unique to Paulo Freire. In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is their natural manure.” Thomas Jefferson believed that freedom and republican government rest on two basic principles: “the diffusion of knowledge among the people” and the idea that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.” Jefferson supported the right to rebel because he recognized that the world was constantly changing. The crucial question was not whether it would change, but the direction of change. Education was essential so that ordinary citizens could participate in this process, defending and enhancing their liberties.

     In the United States, there has frequently been a close connection between advocacy for mass public education and demands for  expanding democracy, social equity, and political reform. For example, in the mid-19th century, Horace Mann championed public education because he believed that the success of the country depended on “intelligence and virtue in the masses of the people.” He argued that, “If we do not prepare children to become good citizens,… then our republic must go down to destruction.”

     John Dewey saw himself within this intellectual tradition. He believed that democratic movements for human liberation were necessary to achieve a fair distribution of political power and an “equitable system of human liberties.”

     As a high school social studies teacher, I promoted transformative goals through direct student involvement in social action projects as part of New York State’s “Participation in Government” curriculum. In New York City, periodic budget crises, ongoing racial and ethnic tension, and the need for social programs in poor communities provided numerous opportunities to encourage students to become active citizens. Class activities included sponsoring student forums on controversial issues, such as requiring parental consent before a teenager can have an abortion, preparing reports on school finances and presenting them as testimony at public hearings, writing position papers for publication in local newspapers, and organizing student and community support for a school-based public health clinic.

     During each activity, social studies goals included making reasoned decisions based on an evaluation of existing evidence, researching issues and presenting information in writing and on graphs, exploring the underlying ideas that shape our points of view, giving leadership by example to other students, and taking collective and individual responsibility for the success of programs. The following are excerpts from a speech presented by a student in my Participation in Government class at a public hearing organized by the New York Pro-Choice Coalition and from an opinion editorial written by students and printed in New York Newsday on January 14, 1990.

     In her speech, a student wrote: “I think it is a good idea to talk to your parents about a pregnancy and an abortion. But I also understand that you may not be able to do this. Some teenagers are afraid to tell their parents. Some teenagers have good reasons why they cannot tell them . . . A law cannot take a distant relationship and make it a close one. That’s why there are hot lines to call and all sorts of counselors, so that a pregnant teenager does not end up boxed into a corner unable to get out . . . My mom has said to me, “If you make mistakes in your life, you are the one who has to live with them. But always remember that I am here for you.” I think all teenagers should be able to talk with their parents. I wish all parents were like my mom, but I know that it’s not that way. That’s why I am fighting against parental consent and parental notification laws.”

     The op-ed piece, a collective effort, said: “The members of the Forum Club strongly disagree with the behavior of some of the prochoice demonstrators at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. We believe that it was uncalled for and inexcusable to disrupt the mass and interfere with communion. We believe that the demonstrators who entered the church were wrong and hurt the ability of the pro-choice movement to win people over to our ideas on human freedom and the rights of Americans.

     However, we also believe that the newspaper coverage of events on that day misrepresented the pro-choice movement. Out of 5,000 people who demonstrated at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on that day, only 43 were arrested inside the church. Furthermore, only one person disrupted Holy Communion.

     Meanwhile, the media buried reports about another demonstration that took place on the same day. In New Jersey, 125 members of Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group, were arrested at a health clinic. They had blocked the entrance to the clinic to prevent women from choosing to have safe and legal abortions. Six of these demonstrators had chained themselves together.

     We believe that on this Sunday, both the pro-choice and anti-abortion groups did things that violated the rights of other Americans. What we don’t understand is why the pro-choice group was singled out for the harsher criticism.”

     These activities represent a very different concept of volunteerism, a concept with deep roots in educational theory and the United States’ democratic heritage. Implementing this approach is not simple. It means combating resistance from school boards and parents. But if John Dewey and Thomas Jefferson are right, and I think they are, it is the best way to insure the habits of mind that are the goals of volunteerism and essential for the preservation and expansion of a democratic society.


Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. NY: Macmillan.

Dewey, J. (1938/1963). Experience and education. NY: Collier/Macmillan.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. NY: Seabury.

Freire, P. (1995). Pedagogy of hope. NY: Continuum.

Singer, A. (2014). Social Studies for Secondary Schools (Routledge).

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