Social Education 57(7), 1994, pp. 381-384
1994 National Council for the Social Studies
Role of Cooperation in Exercising Legitimate Power and Authority
The NCSS Curriculum Guidelines (1979) recommend activities that stimulate students to investigate and respond to the human condition in the contemporary world. Theodore Kaltsounis (1990) elaborates by saying that the knowledge, values, and skills learned in school need to be blended into a demonstration of democratic citizenship through action. We agree and suggest that the essence of democracy is cooperation that can only be realized through the use of legitimate power and authority. We would like to discuss the role of cooperation through the exercise of power and authority in school-based community service projects. Such projects serve as a link between the theory and practice of democratic education and citizenship and appropriate volunteer service activities for all grade levels.
Social studies educators, community leaders, administrators, and politicians are considering community service as a focus for middle school and high school students. Some even advocate that students complete voluntary service in order to graduate from high school. Although this idea has some merit, it seems ironic to require voluntarism which, in reality, denies individuals the opportunity of free choice. In at least one community, compulsory community service is being challenged in the courts (Carpenter 1992). However, citizenship is awarded to individuals at birth and nurturing students in active, successful, and meaningful democratic participation begins early in life. It should also be a part of formal education beginning in the primary grades and continuing through graduation. The responsibilities and opportunities for community and social behaviors are present and need to begin at an early age. Indeed, those who drop out of secondary schools still have the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Waiting until high school to offer students school-based community service is too late for many, particularly those who have not had positive role models and whose adult family members have grown up in a society without a democratic tradition.
Such situations present a challenge to education and particularly to social studies because of its unique and important role of helping students understand how individuals contribute to solving community problems within the democratic tradition in the United States. Most curriculums overlook voluntary service to the community. The tradition of voluntarism can develop only if individuals have become aware of social problems, consider their serious consequences, and decide to act to prevent unacceptable consequences.
Experiencing the practices and the outcomes of cooperation is necessary if students are to understand the concept of democracy. Furthermore, the failure to include a strong emphasis on cooperation in the social studies leaves a huge gap in students' understanding of the important role of the individual in the community. Presently filling that gap is an excessive emphasis on individualism and competition that has contributed to isolationism and economic and social deterioration.
We must cease to see the primary goal of schooling as the ideological indoctrination and preparation for competing in the job market. Rather, we must view schooling with the high goal of preparing students for active citizenship in the community where employment is only one of the many ways an individual exhibits a responsible civic attitude. Not only must students learn how to cooperate with one another and in groups, they must also learn to study social issues. They must learn to channel their personal power and authority toward legitimate social goals through compassion and cooperation that recognize human dignity rather than competition that is destructive because it accepts bias and prejudice. The social studies curriculum with its emphasis on the examination of social issues and problems requires the development of attitudes and skills that enable citizens to exercise their power and authority for legitimate social goals (Engle and Ochoa 1988). Social studies teachers (i.e., citizenship educators) have a responsibility to talk with students as early as possible about the conflict between the values of individualism and cooperation in the community. The classroom, then, becomes the ideal forum for controlled and responsible disagreement and dissent under the guidance of caring, sensitive, and knowledgeable teachers, who are in essence, community leaders.
Legitimate Power and Authority
Figure 1 illustrates on a continuum the scope of social and political activism in the use of personal authority and legitimate power. Only a few people exert political power on a daily basis whereas many more use their power and authority informally and infrequently. People learn the informal use of power and exercise it within less formal social institutions such as the family, neighborhood, and local clubs. Organized and formal uses of power and influence begin with political institutions at the community level. Today's geographical boundaries do not limit many of the issues and concerns of people throughout the world. Such issues become political because they are more likely to involve legal and political mandates in their solutions. Although political activism tends to receive a large share of publicity and historical recognition, social activism historically has responded more quickly to the needs of people, has improved their lives, and has stimulated much of the social legislation we take for granted. Therefore, citizens perform an important role when they take part in social activism particularly in a large, diverse democracy such as the United States (Sunal and Haas 1993).
Participation within the community is the final step in problem solving and decision making and the logical extension of classroom preparation for active citizenship. Students should undertake social or political action only after careful study and preparation so they might understand their involvement in a project and discover how to complete it. School-based community service, therefore, is the only true test of active citizenship, and it provides the opportunity for students to begin exercising their legitimate power with the encouragement, support, and guidance of adults (NCSS 1979, 262).
Although all teachers may not feel comfortable in guiding students to participate politically in elections and legislation, others feel comfortable in helping their students to participate in forms of personal and social caring within their community. Teachers often encourage their students to participate in short-term activities such as food drives, clean-up campaigns, or making posters for local activities. Tradition has often driven these activities. They may have been extracurricular activities without clearly-defined links to the curriculum or the consideration of why such activities are needed or desirable.
As a result, students often develop misconceptions that some problems are important only at certain times of the year or can be solved quickly through simple actions. This not only minimizes the problem, but it also trivializes the role of the citizen in a democracy.
Developing Participation through the Social Studies
Because schools teach theories of society, they should also teach students to apply these theories to the real world. Well-designed and operated school-based community service programs serve as catalysts for community-based political and social activism carried out throughout one's lifetime as illustrated by figure 2. Using community study, interviews, and simulations teachers can help students develop the knowledge, values, and skills and make the emotional investment to motivate and assist youth in performing community service.
The incorporation of school-based community service programs allows young people to enter into political and social activism through voluntary service, projects, and internships. For such programs the greatest opportunities can occur only in an environment of cooperation among the members of the community beyond the classroom including students, teachers, administrators, parents, and social and political agencies. During the development of a citizen, the social studies curriculum serves as the foundation for the formative stage of citizenship preparation. It should include school-based community service as a means to implement, monitor, and evaluate students' active participation. In a detailed examination of four community-based school service programs those programs that included advance preparation with regular opportunities for monitoring and evaluating student experiences provided students with the confidence and ability needed to handle the responsibilities and tensions of community service (Procter 1992).
Introducing cooperative learning techniques into the curriculum, although a step in the right direction, is not enough. Cooperative learning breaks down barriers within a classroom, but it does not guarantee that students will voluntarily transfer these behaviors into actions outside the classroom. In addition, students must experience the presence of conflicts that arise in everyday situations because people differ from one another in the ways they understand and interpret one another's actions. Community participation has great potential for producing skills and attitudes to confront such conflicts and can enhance cooperation among a variety of social, ethnic, and age groups. Because people encounter and cope with these conflicts throughout life, we should not limit the social studies curriculum from studying these conflicts until the secondary grades. In fact, omitting experiences that include conflict creates harmful misconceptions and fails to help students to use their legitimate power and authority and may tend to encourage youth to use their power in selfish and destructive ways.
Variety in Service Projects
Table 1 gives an overview and summarizes the kinds of school-based community service programs currently operating in U.S. schools and the corresponding relationships of the inherent skills, values, and citizenship concepts that students can derive from them. It should help to establish a scope and sequence for community-based service programs. The activities are arranged in a hierarchy with the highest level, the Individual Service Project, including the skills, values, and concepts of the two previous levels. The first level, school service projects is a one-time activity of short duration that provides a service for the school community such as planting trees or a spring clean-up of the grounds.
The Community Service Project is also a one-time effort, but is designed to serve the neighborhood or the entire community and may include cooperating with other groups and usually requires more time and demands a greater variety of skills and talents form the students than the short activities. Converting a vacant lot into a playground for young children or collecting and distributing clothing to help the homeless are examples of such projects. With community service projects students are likely to encounter challenges to their efforts including social and political obstacles such as vested interests and legal procedures.
Individual Service Projects are continuing commitments of several hours of service per week over an extended period of time: students perform one of a variety of different activities including delivering meals-on-wheels, tutoring children, volunteering in a nursing home, or serving as emergency medical volunteers on a regular basis. These types of projects present a wide variety of unique challenges that individuals must solve.
The suggested grade levels in table 1 are generalized for school class projects as a result of examining current practices. Exceptions to this may be special family or neighborhood projects. Likewise, exceptionally motivated students or even entire classes might perform service on higher levels.
The teacher's role at all levels is similar; it always aims to nurture student success and help students to understand the role of cooperation and legitimate power in a democracy. Inherent within the teacher's role is the primary emphasis on education by examining knowledge about the problems and decisions of society.
A school should not undertake a school-based community service program without a great deal of thought and planning. Although service programs generally reward the students with great personal satisfaction and the community with services and products from their labors, many potential individual, legal, and economic problems may arise. These problems increase in both number and complexity as the activities move to the higher levels of the hierarchy (table 1). Just as life does not protect youth from encountering problems, a program that leaves the exclusive bounds of the school exposes students to life's problems that are beyond the control of schools and families. Schools must provide for continuous monitoring of students, in part to assist students who encounter any of a wide range of individual problems. For example, not all neighborhoods are safe, and working in hospitals or nursing homes can create stress and depression as students encounter illness and death. Students may become disappointed if they do not realize their anticipations by their efforts, or with the slow pace of democracy, or legal requirements. The school and all participating organizations need to examine legal implications and insurance liability. For example, in Pennsylvania a compulsory service requirement for graduation is currently being challenged in the courts on the grounds that it is a violation of the ban on involuntary servitude in the Thirteenth Amendment (Asheville Citizen-Times 1992). Likewise, if the schools, volunteers, and agencies are legally liable during community service all parties must be insured. The most important factor for the success of community service programs appears to be the quality of leadership. Consistent, sensitive, and caring leaders must be capable of working with a wide variety of people and with a schedule of working hours that is very different from those of classroom teachers (Procter 1992).
Opportunities are available for students in all grades to perform service in their community and schools have good reasons to involve all students in such activities. Young people in the past have been asked to perform activities such as war bond drives, walk-a-thons, and collections for donations of food or clothing from their families and friends. Students have responded to these calls, but they have provided only their physical strength and have not been asked to apply their thinking and problem-solving abilities. When school-based community service is an integral part of the social studies curriculum, students receive far more than a fleeting good feeling. They grow and develop intellectually and socially. They learn to respect the legitimate power and authority of people and realize their roles in the success of democracy.
As the debate for community service in the schools continues, it is unfortunate that the scope extends only to the higher grades. In so doing the major concerns of teachers in elementary schools and those teaching many minority groups are largely missing. Indeed, even the youngest students and those who drop out of secondary schools still have the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. The need, therefore, is not so much for a capstone course as it is for all students to receive repeated opportunities and experiences for growth in understanding, valuing, and using legitimate power in the community. Although rioting is one form of activism, it is not a legitimate or constructive expression of power. Parents, media, government, and schools must help students discriminate between legitimate and illegitimate expressions of power and encourage use of the former. The social studies curriculum is the natural place to provide the means for students to investigate and review opportunities to participate in expressing the legitimate uses of personal power. When properly used throughout the curriculum, community-based school service can be an effective vehicle for using legitimate power and preparing students for active and responsible citizenship.
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