The level of community service among today’s high-schoolers is always a point of wonder for us panelists. Certainly, we had our “extracurricular activities,” but few engaged in the more outward-looking activities, like staffing a food bank, reading to nursing-home residents, raising money for a disaster somewhere in the world. And students today, the outstanding ones, show an impressive readiness to form a club to “raise awareness” about their particular community service.
While some of this service may be rendered with an eye to enhancing one’s college applications, still the community is served and the students are focused beyond themselves.
But what stood out last year, when I served on the academic achievement panel, was this: While the two final candidates could each boast a perfect 4.0 grade average (though with becoming modesty they did not boast), both of them – on their own, without a cue from the panel – redirected the discussion away from things academic and toward things ethical-moral.
Dan, when we asked what he wanted to be, paused and said, “I just want to be a good person,” then added softly, “even though not many people think that’s important.” With a nod to the other panelists, I departed from the script we’d crafted: “In saying that, then, clearly you think that – what shall we call it? – the moral life is important?” “Yes!” Dan replied, emphatically. He went on to say popular culture tells us to “consume, consume, consume, but I really don’t think that’s the point of life.” Amen! (This was six months after the 2008 financial crash.)
Natalie, the other finalist, likewise redirected the discussion, to point to the financial crash and expound on “the rightness and wrongness of things.” She pointed out the ethical wrongness of irresponsible parties – over-leveraged banks, over-indebted consumers – wreaking havoc in the lives of citizens who act responsibly. Again, amen. It was Natalie who noted it was America (Wall Street) that caused what’s now a global recession.