In "Pay It Forward," Warner Bros. new movie opening on October 20, Kevin Spacey plays Eugene Simonet, a psychologically damaged, but idealistic seventh grade teacher, who asks his students to "think of an idea to change our world and put it into action." Eleven-year-old Trevor McKinney (Haley Joel Osmet) tries to do just that; to change the world with nothing but his heart, his na•ve belief in the goodness of people, and a novel idea for an altruistic pyramid scheme that his mother Arlene (Helen Hunt) describes as "a Mother Theresa Conga line." The movie details the results, some of them tragic, of Mr. SimonetÕs novel social studies assignment that asks his students to take the things you donÕt like in this world and "flip them on their ass." Trevor comes up with a plan, and explains it to his classmates through a blackboard drawing, explaining, "This is me. This is three people. IÕm going to help them." And then, each of the benefactors, in turn, will be told to "pay it forward" to three deserving people of their own.
Paying it forward, in reality, is not just a Hollywood fantasy. Rather, it is a slightly altered portrayal of a national movement called "service learning," which places students in the community to do service related to the classes they are taking. In real life, service-learning students, whether in K-12 or college, are responsibly placed, monitored and supervised. Not surprisingly, in the movie, none of these actions occur.
Instead, Trevor ventures alone into a modern-day, Las Vegas Hooverville where he locates a homeless heroine addict, brings him home, gives him a bowl of cereal, and lets him take a shower in his motherÕs bathroom. After a few setbacks, the homeless man ultimately pays it forward, by stopping a woman from taking a suicidal leap from a bridge. This Hollywood scenario is as real as Mission to Mars. No teacher, of course, would send a kid to save society by sending him into a drug-infested shantytown. Community assignments are carefully planned and supervised. Age-appropriate tasks are arranged. Placements are designed to assure that service is performed in a way that promotes learning. Classroom lectures, reading and assignments reinforce the linkages. Through a process called "reflection" the community experience is tied to what goes on in the classroom. Mr. Simonet did a little of this when he asked students questions about their town and its relationship to the world. He engaged his class in a discussion of whether they think TrevorÕs plan is an "overly Utopian idea." He was making them think and engaging them in critical analysis, a key element of successful service learning, and a skill that employers say is woefully lacking in many new college graduates.
But the rest of the movie is not a Hollywood fantasy. In the California State University system alone, over 135,000 college students a year from all majors are paying it forward by providing direct service, education or policy analysis to people and nonprofit agencies in their communities, for a total of 33.6 million hours of annual service. Of these, nearly 30,000 students are service-learners, performing community service connected to coursework, under the guidance of their professors. At California State University, Northridge, students in over 80 classes are currently providing services such as academic tutoring and cultural enrichment activities for school children; computer and skills classes to at-risk teens and the elderly; environmental safety tests in low-income homes; assisting nonprofit agencies and small businesses with accounting, management and marketing needs; and even redesigning the jury room in the Van Nuys Court House to make the room more user friendly.
Why does higher education promote service learning? Ask a young person if they intend to vote in the November election. If statistics echo the last presidential election, only 32% of 18-24 year-olds will say "yes." Only 50% have bothered to register to vote. Young people are disenchanted, and their descriptions of government usually range from apathy, to disgust, cynicism, to disenchantment. Higher education is being blamed for some of these shortcomings. Since the 1980s, national leaders have been chastising colleges for their "Ivory Tower" aloofness and indifference; for producing abstract research that wouldnÕt recognize a community problem if it bit them on the nose, and for rewarding faculty who publish irrelevant articles in obscure journals instead of those who teach or work with students to bring about desired change.
Ernest Boyer of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching challenged universities to pursue what he called "the scholarship of engagement." Service learning is the latest and one of the most successful incarnations of the universityÕs response to that challenge. This month, The Center for Community Service Learning at California State University, Northridge received a $105,000 government allocations to develop new classes and support student involvement in meaningful community service linked to course content. The funds are CSUNÕs share of a $2.2 million allocation from Governor Gray Davis in the StateÕs 2000-2001 budget. In addition to providing a wide range of service to our neighbors, the funds will hopefully help spur civic engagement and community involvement among our students, make them active citizens with lifelong commitments to using their education not just to make money, but to make things better. If an 11-year-old can "fix something," with the help of an inspired teacher, think what the Class of 2001 can do if serviceÐlearning classes in college teach them to pay it forward.
Maureen Rubin is Director of the Center for Community-Service Learning at California State University, Northridge.
Cal State, Bakersfield also is participating ihn this program, and ahs $ 50,000 to allocate to projects. For more information, read about our service learning grants on the TLC home page ( click on "Grants, then "Service Learning Support Opportunity") or see Chesni Meske (x2100 or 2410) at Community Service Programs, AE 131. Don't delay! These grants are likely to be allocated soon. TLC 10/00