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Jewish World Review March 14, 2000/ 7 Adar II, 5760

Marianne M. Jennings

Marianne M. Jennings
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The volunteerism of conscription and pomp -- NO ONE SHOULD CHUG AHEAD in this all-average nation on the basis of ability. If over-achievers do pull ahead, the gracious and compassionate install a mechanism to curb the achievement or, better yet, change the rules so that the chuggers are left in the dust by the non-achievers who have now been redefined to be achievers. Animal Farm redux.

Over the next decade we will witness the demise of merit as a standard for college admission and scholarship awards. Presently, the Clinton administration has posed Godfather-like threats to institutions of higher learning that continue to use that racist SAT as a screen for admission.

Truly, how different is the hypotenuse of a triangle in Harlem from one in Brentwood? Intelligence knows no race and IQ does not exist only near Starbucks. But there is now a weighted SAT score for "strivers" which adjusts actual score by race and socioeconomic status. What next? Access to the five food groups as an SAT factor?

Having eliminated the disparate number labels for students, the daunting task was finding an alternative system for college admission and scholarships that is achievable by all, not based on intelligence or ability, and designed to eliminate fossil fuels. Enter student volunteerism, the new nebulous criteria for picking scholars. Numbers be damned, students must demonstrate a "giving back to the community" or "venture philanthropy." Guys with pony tails working in Seattle and Silicon Valley "invest socially" in students and the result is mandated volunteerism by dudes who play "ultimate Frisbee." Scholastic achievement is not their thing, community gardens are.

My oldest daughter, Sarah, just finished the college admission and scholarship gauntlet. Her story makes Moliere's satire look like a Barney episode. When she learned of the volunteerism game, she began a quest for amassing hours of service, preferably, as she said, "in something that saves the planet or cures AIDS." Ah, the precise wit of youth as it pierces phony adults foisting ideological agendas upon them.

She was rejected out-of-hand by the nearby hospital -- too many candy stripers. She then tried the Child Crisis Center. After a month of unrequited letters and calls, she abandoned her hopes of ending the national spousal abuse problem. On to Phoenix Children's Hospital where, through her mother's connections, she did get a return phone call. She spent a Saturday in training only to learn that she would have to miss the last two hours of school to work there doing clerical tasks. Ah, truant volunteerism with light typing. She then went to the Boys & Girls Club where she was given an application that had been filled out by someone else and told to "use white-out" and reuse the application. With no response to her application, she was about to pay a follow-up visit to beg when the newspapers carried a photo of the "white-out" man because he had been arrested for child sexual abuse. She protested my nixing the Boys & Girls Club, "Think of it, Mom. I can put down that I worked with child molesters and lived to tell about it."

She eventually landed a volunteer position as a teacher's aide at her brother's Montessori school and came away with the conclusion most sixteen-year-olds would have after a summer's work with toddlers, "I'm never having children."

Equal to her disillusionment about the hygiene of small children has been her disillusionment with a system that ignored her talents and imposed requirements she knows anyone in her school can do. She feels indistinguishable from those who coasted through school in bonehead courses.

How does a parent save a child with a 5.0 GPA and a through-the-ceiling SAT from cynicism born of arbitrariness? How does a parent explain that life really is fair when the state's coveted Flinn Scholarship was awarded to a classmate with a lower class rank and SAT score but better volunteerism?

How does a parent continue to demand attention to studies when every signal to her child from counselors, teachers, universities and those who fund scholarships is that merit doesn't count, volunteerism does?

Years ago, Harvard and the other Ivy Leagues figured out that when they admitted students on the basis of family name, they were assured of only two things: cash for their endowments and dunderheads. Faculty rebelled and instituted a system of meritocracy — those with the numbers were admitted. Family name counted only when there was a building or two involved. Dunces were marginalized and strong admits meant high caliber graduates.

Volunteerism is no better substitute for college admission than family name. Its arbitrariness is a destructive force. Higher learning now mandates charity and then rewards those who happen to pick a social investment benefactors find politically moving. It is an unspeakable assault on educational excellence and an intrusion into the private lives of young people. Worse, this oxymoronic volunteerism by conscription comes complete with braggadocio, hardly the spirit of charity. "Charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up . . . seeketh not her own."

St. Paul must be spinning in his grave like a lathe.

JWR contributor Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2000, Marianne M. Jennings