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Opinion
Student Well-Being Commentary

Small Sacrifices

By Bernice Lerner — August 29, 2008 6 min read

During a recent visit to Japan, I was able to witness a people’s great sense of decorum and attention to detail. One scene that particularly impressed me occurred as our bullet train pulled into the Kyoto station. On the platform, a well-dressed man was carefully removing the paper label from his empty bottle and putting both into separate recycling bins. He was taking time in a busy day to properly dispose of his trash.

I saw the same level of care and precision while visiting Japanese schools. With hygiene standards important adjuncts to the learning environment there, students change out of their street shoes and into sneakers upon entering school buildings. In Hiroshima’s Shinonome Elementary School, where I was observing classes, they also change again, into sandals, before entering the restroom.

The 19th-century Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville believed that the discipline of performing small sacrifices every day “shapes a lot of orderly, temperate, moderate, careful, and self-controlled citizens. If it does not lead the will directly to virtue, it establishes habits which unconsciously turn it that way.”

Visiting foreign countries helps one see one’s own more clearly. In the United States, we do not yet have separate recycling bins at most train stations, and we certainly don’t take off our shoes upon entering a school. But we do have a decent and proud citizenry. We are moved by acts of caring for strangers in need. Who can forget, six weeks after Sept. 11, 2001, when Ray Charles sang “America the Beautiful” at the second game of the World Series? Its third verse reminded those in attendance—and television viewers as well—of the hundreds of New York City police and firefighters who risked their lives trying to rescue those in the burning towers of the World Trade Center:

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life.

Good citizenship is displayed in many contexts and through various forms of positive action. Consider some characteristics of citizenship on the local level: As members of schools, workplace communities, religious organizations, and neighborhoods, we may support local businesses or charities, participate on a conservation commission or a library board, or otherwise model civic virtue for the young. Likewise, in their schools and local communities, young people can volunteer for community service activities and conscientiously shape positive lifestyle habits, such as turning off the computer after using it, recycling and using recycled products, and taking care not to pollute the environment.

One of my friends suffers on account of her neighbor, who saves on his heating costs by using a wood-burning stove. Soot spews from his chimney, coating the side of her house and seeping through cracks around its windows. During winter cold spells, she and her family feel its effects on their respiratory tracts. According to local ordinances, her neighbor is not violating any law. He probably considers himself a good citizen, and would even agree that industries should install pollution-inhibiting devices on their factory smokestacks, so as not to put people’s health at risk. Yet when my friend asked him to problem-solve the situation with her, he refused to acknowledge its seriousness.

If everyone acted as this man does—solely according to his private will, enjoying rights of citizenship while ignoring fundamental rights of others—society would be in trouble. Good citizenship entails sacrifice. Paying for clean heating or an override in taxes, carpooling or taking public transportation, and disposing of trash in environmentally safe ways may be costly or inconvenient, but such sacrifices are for the common good.

In caring for those within our local sphere, we sow the seeds of a more expansive altruism. The Irish statesman Edmund Burke envisioned a natural progression of commitments: “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections,” he wrote. It is in going beyond our “little platoon” that we proceed to a love of country.

In Britain, the prime minister has issued an invitation for the public to help develop a statement of British values. People throughout the country will be consulted, and the government will convene a “citizens’ summit” to deliberate on what it means to be British. The aim is to formulate a “bill of rights and duties” for citizens. There is talk of writing a constitution, instituting a “British Day,” and revisiting the national anthem, “God Save the Queen.”

The British people are reacting in a variety of ways to these efforts. So, from a distance, am I. The educator in me sees possibilities. Teachers, for example, could invite their students to reflect on their British citizenship: What rights are they accorded, and what obligations are they expected to fulfill? What British traditions ought to be preserved and/or celebrated? Teachers could encourage young people to interview their older relatives or neighbors to explore their heritage. They could also put before their students historical, cultural, and political facts about British and other societies, to help them make useful comparisons.

Students might also—in learning about a range of possibilities—envision solutions to problems. They might, for example, gather ideas for how to help the National Trust conserve mountain paths eroded by hundreds of hikers each summer. I would hope that attendees at a citizens’ summit would consider how to capitalize on young people’s intelligence, energies, and talents, and discuss how to encourage their engagement with national concerns.

This is as true in America as in Britain or any other democracy: When citizenship is taught in the context of loving relationships with teachers, in a mature nation, students’ vision can be stretched. They can seek (in any measure) to ameliorate the plights of peoples subjected to war, poverty, natural disasters, epidemics, or terrorism; this sphere encompasses fellow human beings who are citizens elsewhere. As University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann has said, “[P]ublic education ought to cultivate in all students the skills and virtues of democratic citizenship, including the capacity to deliberate about the demands of justice for all individuals.”

Lest students feel overwhelmed, we can make clear that the question is not “What can I do that will actually make a difference on a global scale?” but rather, “What modest action on my part can improve the lives of others?”

When I was in high school, a woman called Bunny taught a group of us girls how to raise money for Cancer Care. On weekends, I stood in the entryway of a department store that sold luxury and household goods, canister in hand. As people left the store, I politely yet assertively asked them to make a contribution. At the time, I knew few people with that dreaded diagnosis, yet during those hours there was nothing more important to me than helping anonymous sufferers by raising money for cancer research.

Caring for others begins at home. With proper education, it spreads. It is the educator’s moral obligation to help students embrace causes larger than themselves, and to encourage them to display good citizenship in all spheres of life.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 03, 2008 edition of Education Week as Small Sacrifices

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