Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York City in 1964 while 38 of her neighbors watched. None called for help. Her tragic death prompted extensive research on what leads certain individuals to help while others turn their backs.
The experts found that to have compassionate values was of importance, but that simply espousing these values was not enough. Rather, the individuals who were willing to help were distinguished by a sense of competence. They saw themselves as being able to make a difference, and because of this sense of competence, they were willing to take risks. Each saw himself as "a player."
To develop a society of students who are "players," a proposal to make the completion of 75 hours of student service a requirement for high-school graduation in Maryland is now before the State Board of Education. And it is at this point that the board must answer the ultimate question surrounding the purpose of public education. It is not simply a process by which we implant facts and figures in our children's minds. The task must be to help shape our citizenry of today and tomorrow; to help our young people form a compassionate and connected view of the world around them.
Every dollar spent to educate our children will be devalued if our children are not shown that they are connected to and must contribute to the community around them. Nobel Peace Prize recipient and author Elie Wiesel wrote, "The opposite of intelligence is not ignorance, it is indifference. . . . The opposite of life is not death, it is indifference to life and death."
We cannot continue to allow Maryland's students to believe that indifference is acceptable or that their futures are not connected to the futures of all their schoolmates. Commentators have recently taken note of the growing indifference among the privileged who are increasingly shying away from involvement in the biggest game of all -- the construction of a healthy community life for all citizens.
The irony is that the result affects everyone, including those who think they can drop out. When parents were asked in a recent survey what they feared most, 72 percent said they feared that their child would be abducted by a stranger. Statistically, the chance of this occurring is 1 in 1.5 million. But what these parents really fear is that their children are growing up in a society they perceive as an unfriendly, uncaring place, filled with people who are indifferent and people who don't believe they can be "players."
To reject the student-service proposal would be to turn our backs on perhaps the greatest opportunity for all of Maryland's students to become the "players" they can be. Children are all reaching for competence, autonomy and the power to affect and change things. Being a peer tutor or a buddy to a disabled individual are just two examples of contributions these students can make -- contributions that both help to build their own character, their own sense of competence and to provide worthwhile and necessary contributions to our society.
As Martin Buber, the great philosopher, said to his pupils; "Are you ready -- to play the game of life -- for each other, for history, for the world?" Maryland educators owe it to our students to help them be ready, by giving them the chance to be "players" and contribute.
Susan P. Leviton, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, is president of Advocates for Children & Youth, Inc.