PMADD: Let’s serve for more than one day


By Simon Brown / Columnist

More than 3,000 highlighter yellow-emblazoned students embarked on buses Saturday to plant trees, clean trash and generally “make a difference” in the Pittsburgh area. Pitt Make a Difference Day demonstrates our campus’ admirable commitment to the community, but it also demonstrates everything lacking in the University’s notion of “service.”

Criticizing PMADD is like criticizing the ALS Ice-Bucket Challenge — it’s usually accompanied by ample eye-rolling and minimal sympathy. I’m not claiming that PMADD is bad for the community. I’m certainly not claiming that the students “making the difference” in PMADD do so with unadmirable intentions. But, I am claiming that students and universities can do better, and that begins with a better definition of service. 

Service has become a catchall for volunteering and public engagement administration at the university level. One need only look to this fall’s Student Volunteer Outreach absorption into ‘PittServes’ — to note the prevalence and appeal of the word. 

Since the mid-1980s, universities have scrambled to incorporate “Service-Learning” within students’ curricular and extracurricular activities. Universities have seen a particularly pronounced increase in students’ services in the past few years. According to statistics compiled by Campus Compact from its 1,100 member universities, including Pitt, universities saw the number of students participating in “community work” climb from roughly 30 to 45 percent, with a $4 billion total increase in the value of the service to the community. 

No sensible person could deny that this considerable increase deserves praise. Universities accurately recognize that students can and should learn to apply their classroom-taught skills to assist nonprofits and community organizations that address social problems. More important, however, is that it can expose students to systemic social ills from which they are otherwise sheltered within the confines of campus life. 

Exposure, however, is only the first step to correcting social inequities. For university “service” projects, though, it is usually the last.

“Service” at its best can force students to confront problems close to campus. Service does not, however, solve those problems. No matter how many hours students commit to cleaning up South Oakland, trash will remain on the streets until students seriously consider how their presence in the neighborhood affects quality of life for longtime residents, homeowners and businesses. No matter how many college students tutor low-income high schoolers to prepare for the SAT, that demographic will still be underrepresented at universities as long as their classes are inadequately funded and their teachers inadequately prepared and supported. 

These problems result from deep-seated cultural attitudes and public policies, and we as students cannot satisfactorily address those problems if we do not begin to understand how to change the causes. That understanding, however, takes serious work — far more than six hours on a Saturday. 

Universities are the ideal institutions to motivate this intellectual work born of community work. Getting the proverbial dirt under the nails through service, such as PMADD, should begin a process of reflection and research into the roots of the problems that service, as it is construed now, can only address on the surface. 

Students should walk away from the trees they planted with not only well-deserved satisfaction but also some deserving questions. Why do under-resourced communities rely on college students to plant their trees, while students enjoy the trees on campus without having to give them a second thought? What organizations should be responsible for planting the trees in those neighborhoods? Who can I vote for to make sure trees get planted where they need to be?

Motivating these questions ought be the central concern of university-run service departments and student-run community outreach. Until then, students’ work will only make a difference for a day.

Write to Simon at [email protected]