What’s wrong with your community?

March 15, 2017 by Joshua
in Education

NYU’s president wrote in a letter to the university on the occasion of its spring break:

A dozen people from Liberal Studies will be working with a local organization in Antigua, Guatemala, to build homes for low-income families. A group of students led by faculty from the Department of French will be working on a project to study and preserve the native French language spoken in Louisiana. In Stone Mountain, Georgia, students will work with a refugee center to tutor children and assist with distributing clothing donations. The Center for Student Activities, Leadership, and Service will bring a group of students to go once again to El Cidral, a town in the Dominican Republic, to carry on a multiyear project to build a levee to protect local homes from flooding by the Mana River. And our MLK Scholars will travel to Ghana, where the students will work on a sustainability and beautification project in Accra and work with children in the Torgome village school.

Even for those of us who will not be traveling to a service project, we can all be proud of our friends and colleagues who are devoting their spring break to serving others. And it should serve as a prompt to all the rest of us to look for a moment during our own lives to try to do something—even if it is small—for others.

These acts of kindness can serve as a counterpoint to a moment when there is doubt about whether there is compassion for the disadvantaged. I’m proud that NYU has stood up for its beliefs as demonstrated by our engagement in service projects and in our positions as an institution.

What happened to your next-door neighbor?

Guatemala, Louisiana, Georgia, Dominican Republic, Ghana, Accra, …

Where did this fetishization and need to travel to serve others come from?

Why does this passage sounds so patronizing, or is just me? What’s so great about NYU students that they think that they can solve other people’s problems so much better than they can themselves to justify the equivalent of years of driving worth of pollution to get there and back?

How many people believe that NYU students are that much better at building homes than the people who live there? Or better at all? Does anyone believe that if their parents asked them to help fix their own homes’ plumbing they’d consider it service to others?

NYU—in particular, its new president—is trying to lower the cost of an education here. In a city teeming with homeless, why are students traveling around the world to “help” people in communities they will not live in? In a university building new buildings, why don’t these students help build NYU’s buildings? Doing so would

  • Save costs
  • Connect themselves to their community
  • Lead them to live with the product of their work
  • Teach practical skills
  • Prepare them for future jobs

I suspect the university won’t use its own population to build its building because it doesn’t consider the students competent. Or the professors.

Imagine you wanted to renovate your home. Would you consider hiring a firm who employs rich undergraduates who work there for a few weeks and then leave?

So why do we unleash their incompetence on the third world?

Whom are they trying to kid?

NYU students offer no special competence for the “services” they ostensibly provide.

If the students wanted to serve, they could take a subway ride or even walk, to find homeless people. Even then they’d have to get more training.

It looks to me like these trips are for the students. To the extent they aren’t competent to build, their benefit of traveling to exotic locations may come at the expense of more results had the students, say, bought tickets for out-of-work but experienced laborers to go to these places instead of them. If you truly want to serve, wouldn’t using your money to deliver the most competent people serve more?

More work would get done and cultures would be shared just as much. Why not do it? I suspect because the students wouldn’t personally benefit, belying that these projects are only nominally service projects but really feel-good fun vacations.

I have nothing against feel-good fun junkets. Have a ball. But calling it service diminishes the skills of more competent out-of-work people you aren’t sending as well as the abilities of people there to take care of themselves. The travel pollutes and raises the costs of education. It insults the poor neighborhoods nearby that aren’t exotic enough. If they need emergency help, send the most skilled people who can help.

It undermines local communities here and there.

What’s wrong with your community?

I have an idea of what’s wrong with NYU’s community: its members value leaving it more than staying there and don’t value people in it worth their “service”… values its leadership promotes.

By the way, this post isn’t about NYU in particular. I’m confident it applies to most American universities.

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