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The Service/Politics Split: Rethinking Service to Teach Political Engagement*

  • Tobi Walker (a1)

Over the past few years, I have experimented with a classroom exercise that encourages students to think about how they perceive service and politics. I ask the students to create lists of service activities and political activities in which they and their friends and families engage. The service list typically includes such activities as working in a soup kitchen, delivering meals to the homebound, tutoring in the school system, and cleaning up parks. The list of political activities usually includes things like voting, protesting, raising money, lobbying, letter writing, and running for office.

Turning students' attention to the list of community service activities, I ask them to give some adjectives that people might use to describe the listed projects. The students usually offer such descriptors as altruistic, caring, helping, selfless, and giving, as well as individualistic and one-on-one. Often, the students will also add the words selfish or insincere to describe those students who engage in community service to enhance their resume or earn academic credit.

Asked for adjectives that describe politics, the words come fast and furious—dirty, corrupt, ambitious, crooked, dishonest, compromising, slow. After the initial rush of negative descriptors and with little prompting on my part, students will also talk about politics as a means to affect social change and make a difference for groups of people.

I have used this exercise with audiences ranging from young women uninterested in politics, to young people planning careers in politics and policy making, to foundation officials.

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Corporation for National Service. 1996. National Service News 4, June 17, 1.
James, William. 1967. “The Moral Equivalent of War.” The Writings of William James, ed. McDermott, John J.New York: Random House.
McCarthy, Kathleen D. 1990. “Parallel Power Structures: Women and the Voluntary Sphere.” In Lady Bountiful Revisited: Women, Philanthropy, and Power, ed. McCarthy, Kathleen D.New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Moskos, Charles. 1988. A Call to Civic Service. New York: The Free Press.
National Association of Secretaries of State. 1999. The New Millennium Project – Part I: American Youth Attitudes on Politics, Citizenship, Government and Voting <>. Washington, DC: NASS. Accessed: June 1999.
Pascoe, Peggy. 1990. Relations of Rescue. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Panetta Institute. 2000. “Institute Poll Shows College Students Turned Off by Politics, Turned On by Other Public Service” <>. Accessed: February 2000.
Ryan, Mary P. 1979. “The Power of Women's Networks: A Case Study of Female Moral Reform in Antebellum America.” Feminist Studies 5(Spring): 6685.
Scott, Anne Firor. 1990. “Women's Voluntary Associations: From Charity to Reform.” In Lady Bountiful Revisited: Women, Philanthropy, and Power, ed. McCarthy, Kathleen D.New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Welter, Barbara. 1966. “The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820-1860.” American Quarterly 18:151–74.
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PS: Political Science & Politics
  • ISSN: 1049-0965
  • EISSN: 1537-5935
  • URL: /core/journals/ps-political-science-and-politics
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