One of the topics that often comes up on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is the idea of a national year of service. This is the practice of taking a gap year after graduating from high school to do some kind of public service. Some people want it to be mandatory and others want it to be optional. Some want it to be domestic and some want to include international service. Some want to include military service and some want it to be purely social action. Each person has her own idea of what kinds of service should be included. And of course the process, selection, costs, benefits, etc. have to be worked through.
I originally wrote a post that reflected on each of these decisions, but I will let you look elsewhere (for example). Instead, I would rather focus on one particular dimension – the benefits of what psychologists call perspective taking. This is what happens when you develop the ability to see a situation, a problem, a decision, or the world in general, from someone else’s point of view. It is easy to jump to the conclusion that this adds an additional perspective to your own. By seeing a problem from two points of view, you can develop a better solution. Makes perfect sense.
But it turns out, there is a much more powerful effect. It raises your level of construal – which is what psychologists call “seeing the big picture.” Experience looking at situations from multiple vantage points changes the way you look at everything, even when you only use your own perspective. You bump up a level.
So now let’s turn back to this Year of Service idea. The more different the perspective that it requires students to take, the more effectively it will build their capacity for perspective taking. And if it lasts a year, there are a lot of great service jobs that will give them a wide variety of experiences. The one requirement that I would put on the service activity is that it has to be something as different as possible from what they have done before.
I have seen students with better perspective taking capacity and a generally higher level of construal when approaching everything they do. They are better students in many ways. They deliver better course assignments, but that is just a short term benefit. They also have a greater capacity to gain from other things they do in school. From their sports, their clubs, their part time jobs, and on and on.
So as a professor, I would selfishly want a mandatory Year of Service and have some rules that push students into very different experiences. Plus, I think the social benefits are pretty valuable as well.
So I have two questions for you today. First, given this idea of perspective taking and construal level, do you think that this is a wonderful thing for students to do in between high school and whatever their next life chapter is (work, college, whatever)?
And if so, what other rules would you add?