Back to School

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I just couldn’t stay away. After four years of college, four in graduate school, a summer spent studying for the bar exam at Potbelly Sandwich Shop (live music lunchtime and free refills!), I’m dusting off my pencil box and going back to school.

Why the education addiction? Am I still trying to work out the sting of bygone near-victory — after narrowly losing Homecoming Prince to Mormon superman John Wirthlin? 

Perhaps it’s just arrested development. (I did return to high school between college and grad school — taking a year off to substitute-teach at Frankel Jewish Academy, where I also coached the school’s Lady Jaguars to volleyball dominance in the Catholic League.)

This latest matriculation is different. I have the huge honor (and high hurdle) of teaching “Topics in Public Policy: Volunteerism,” an undergraduate course of my own creation, at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. Here’s an excerpt from the course description:

Americans volunteer — at least they purport and aspire to. From de Tocqueville to Obama, volunteerism has always been a central, evolving part of the American identity. We perform community service through nonprofit organizations, government programs, schools, businesses, faith-based initiatives — even the penal system.

We have put a lot of stock in volunteerism as an engine for positive social change, and we derive a strong sense of optimism from community service; but it is not always clear whether the rhetoric resembles the reality. Does community service produce stronger, safer, healthier people and communities or, instead, college essays, corporate newsletters and political photo opportunities? Or some symbiotic combination of the two?

The fall term is upon us, and I’m nervous as hell. No amount of corduroy-elbow-padded armor can protect me from those 20 nimble young minds who are primed for an intellectual sparring match. I know from experience.

In Making of the Modern American Landscape, a history course I took freshman year at Columbia, the professor showed the class a slide of a statue depicting people in downtown Detroit and opined, “There are no real people left in Detroit, so they’ve replaced them with metal people who can’t leave.”

I bit my lip, but when that picture showed up as a prompt on the final exam, I wrote: “Have you ever been to Detroit? It’s an easy target when you’re sitting pretty in Manhattan, but Detroit is not just a history lesson. It has a real present and a viable future. I’ll take some pictures for you when I am home this summer.” And I did, and was invited back to his class my senior year to give a guest lecture on Detroit’s non-metallic people.

I suppose that’s the magnetism of school for me: ideas — and the audacity to assert them — as a currency all their own. It’s more tempting than ever to look for easy answers to hard questions, especially when we have unlimited information at our fingertips.

But there’s a subtle, substantive benefit we derive when we take it upon ourselves to think hard, dig deep and ask questions — usually answering those questions with more questions. As Robert Frost described it, presumably while on some lesser-traveled road, “College is a refuge from hasty judgment.”

In a way, being a volunteer and a student have shared appeal — and anxiety: both induce productive discomfort as a means to personal growth, with the hope that we might effect some positive social change along the way.

In each case, when we manage to get comfortable outside our comfort zones, there’s no telling what we can do.

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