The Path to Public Service at SEAS
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As a potential lawyer, I am often loathe to admit one important aspect of legal work. Essentially, the world would be a more pleasant place if lawyers weren't necessary. This dictum applies not only to ambulance-chasers, but to the most altruistic public interest attorneys; all of them work within the context of unfortunate or troubling circumstances. The occupation resides within an essentially broken world; the pursuit of justice is only occasioned by inequity.
Such observations may seem to be truisms. Yet I believe that too many volunteers at our university conclude their commitments at places like Phillips Brooks House without seriously considering the fact that social systems, human creations, created a need for our services. And inattention to such basic facts of social structure militates against the effectiveness of all social action.
Professor Robert Coles transports many of us to parallel universes in which the "call to service" appears no less than compelling; they inspire exceptional sympathy with the disadvantaged. Such sympathy represents a great motivation for volunteers, an empathic attachment with clients served, leading to a sense of reward (ethical or otherwise) from such interaction.
Having canvassed many PBH volunteers, I have found that they are nearly universally motivated by such empathy. It is important to cultivate such feelings in order to guarantee connections between Harvard students and surrounding communities. Yet there is another motivating factor for individual service which often gets neglected. "Ideologically" motivated volunteers respond to an overarching political, religious, or ethical understanding that dictates concern for the less fortunate or a desire to alter fundamental social structures. Last popular during the 1930s, ideological motivations have become less and less plausible for leaders in public service.
Certainly, larger theoretical understandings may develop if suitably cultivated and reinforced. However, such ideological motivation is inevitably a risky affair. On the systemic front, it risks our nonprofit status and potentially alienates volunteers. (I know that I constantly oscillated between educating and offending many of the more "moderate" volunteers at my own PBH committee). Yet, even more importantly, in our postmodern, market-driven age there are few students willing to privilege any structured account of social or economic oppression, and far fewer individuals capable of teaching it.
Therefore, empathic attachment seems to win the day. Yet, after service work is completed, can such involvement help direct the rest of the life of a student uncommitted to larger social and political change? Is a certain emotional connection enough? I'd like to argue that it is not.
In his 1848 Speech to the Chamber of Deputies, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that no happening is "an isolated event...[for] each individual fact mirrors and illuminates the whole." Such a universalizing synecdoche may seem extreme at first, but actually outlines a method of social theorizing that could lead many volunteers to a clearer understanding of their service. As John Boesche explicates the Tocquevillian method of social analysis, society "resembles a delicately balanced mobile in which every aspect settles into its position as a result of the compromise and influence of every other."
Now this argument lays to rest any crudely deterministic model of social change. Yet it provides us with a bit more sociological instruction than Donne's parallel insight that "No man is an island." For it suggests an essential unity to our social existence; that, for instance, there can be no society of opulence without complementary austerity, and that the middle class depends for its [nomenclatural] existence on the perpetuation of a lower one.
Now the great weakness in my advocacy of "ideological motivation" is that I have no systematic account of social oppression and dislocation. Yet I can suggest an outline of such a theory, based on my experience as a participant in and observer of our legal system.
With the proliferation of sensational murder trials and acquittal spectacles, many Americans have begun to assume that money simply buys justice. When combined with overall distrust and disappointment with the legislative and executive branches of government, such cynicism threatens to undermine the legitimacy of our political system. Even worse, it creates a vicious cycle of disillusionment--people withdraw from engaging with dysfunctional systems, which in turn become even less responsive as those dissatisfied with them entirely give up on changing or influencing them.
As the courts are perceived more as a locus for punishment and "rehabilitation" than for authentic self-assertion of rights and interests, they drive poorer litigants out of the system. Given this dynamic, I no longer wonder at the corporations' domination of the small claims courts in which I work. Their methods are sickeningly clear.
Yet this understanding has not led me to nihilism. I see my work as part of a greater movement to reclaim law and politics for the people. We took on despots in the eighteenth century and robber barons in the nineteenth. Now in the twentieth and into the twenty-first, we are called to rebel against another great, illegitimate concentration of power--the corporation.
This understanding yields important concrete results. It means that anyone supporting the 104th Congress's trashing of democracy, its wholesale auctioning of legislation and transfer of wealth from the poorest to the richest in our nation, cannot be considered a true volunteer for the public interest. Participants in the "Republican Revolution" who simultaneously engage in social services must be acting out of either ignorance or penitence. For they obstruct the last and greatest of our revolutions, the democratic revolution.
Only when citizens have full power to shape the course of their economy, the content of their airwaves, and the direction of their nation's growth can they be considered truly free. A worldwide democratic union, with regulatory power over multinational aggregations of wealth and power, is the only logical conclusion of this ideal.
Perhaps the grandiosity of this "social vision" indicates that we should give more respect to those who attempted to craft one in the past. I find examples in people like John Dewey, with his great veneration of democracy; or Herbert Marcuse, who spotted the debilitating effects of untrammeled capitalism all around him; and presently Jurgen Habermas, who sees in unlimited corporate expansion a new colonization of our minds and lifestyles potentially as insidious and oppressive as colonial regimes of old. Any of these theorists could profitably be studied by those seeking to "place" their work in a larger social context.
Yet we must ask what such realizations will mean practically for volunteers committed to social services. To borrow a metaphor from Anthony Kronman, I believe it means we have to see through "bifocals" as volunteers--constantly understanding and empathizing with those whom we "serve," while conceptualizing their difficulties within a larger understanding of social organization. We must learn that all the philosophizing and social theorizing in the world does nothing if it ignores the subjective deprivations around us.
Adopting the dual role of theorist-volunteer means that we are radically dependent on learning from our "clients" if we hope to serve them in any meaningful sense. To paraphrase Paulo Freire, we have to encourage a pedagogy by the oppressed as we connect volunteerism to a larger framework of social understanding. This is the essential role of a "service learning" program in the academy, and makes it more than worthy of a place within the canon of our "core" requirements.
This vision of volunteering is exceptionally demanding, and I can't claim to have upheld its standards through my time working with disadvantaged individuals. Too often I have been exhausted by it, or by the infinitely more difficult task of transmitting the passion and commitment that comes with such understanding to a collection of raw recruits. Yet despite its stresses, I think it's worth it. For only by cultivating these connections between the personal and the political can we hope for lasting social change, and for a chance to put ourselves out of business as volunteers.
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