The Effect of Personal Development on Community

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Productive citizens are made, not born. A well coordinated education that includes learning basic facts, critical thinking skills, and exposure to meaningful experience can have a positive impact on individuals and their communities. The idea that community and citizenship needs to be cultivated through emphasis on personal development has been studied by researchers, explored through literature, and finally is being incorporated into public schooling.

At a time where cultural diversity and globalization is stretching the boundaries of community and introducing ‘global citizenship’ into the vernacular, focus on personal development and critical thinking is essential for community change. Yet current public policy is furthering class divisions and teaching some students that they cannot effect community change because of how well they do in school or where they live. Government policies have traditionally focused their resources on encouraging economic development to ensure community stability.

Yet community development has a more powerful effect on people and their communities than economic development. Defined as the course of action or attempt of building communities on a local level with stress on building the economy, forging and strengthening social ties, and developing the non-profit sector, community development entails a holistic view of stability. It seeks to empower individuals and groups of people by providing these groups with the skills they need to effect change in their own communities.

These skills are frequently concentrated around building political power through the formation of large social groups working for a common agenda. To effect real change and create stability, the government and community developers must realize both how to work with individuals and how to affect communities’ positions within the perspective of larger social organizations. In this regard, service learning is yet another way to build communities. By definition, service learning is an educational method by which participants learn and grow through vigorous participation in service that is conducted in and meets the needs of a community.

Great thinkers have long made the connection between personal development, hands on experience, and community impact. Ben Franklin was famous for taking time to explore his personal passions and conduct bold experiments, forever changing the way humans live and interact. His famous experiment of flying a kite with a key in a thunderstorm led to the discovery of electricity and enabled everything from seeing well at night, to the entire computer information age. Great writers have used the theme of the positive effect of personal development on the community to drive their plots and uncover human nature.

In his famous novel Deliverance, James Dickey shows his reader how a forced interaction can cause growth and forever change the mindset of the community by changing the mind of just one community member. The protagonist is Ed Gentry, shown to be average in every way; both physically unimpressive, and mentally indistinct. By presenting the hero as someone unexceptional, Dickey intimates that Ed Gentry could be the reader, the reader’s brother, or someone the reader knows.

To set the scene, Dickey describes Ed, Lewis, Drew and Bobby as four suburban friends who are going on a canoeing trip down the Cahulawassee river in Georgia, hoping to see a piece of undeveloped land that is about to be turned into a lake. Lewis Med-Ford is an outdoorsman who has been to this river before, fit, intelligent, and macho. The other characters are as average as Ed; Bobby Trippe is a bachelor salesman with a sarcastic sense of humor, comfortable in an indoor environment. Drew Ballinger is a devoted soda pop company employee and a family man.

The narrator Ed Gentry is co-owner of a graphic art agency. Ed enjoys the outdoors but envys Lewis’ masculine strength and bravery, calling him “one of the strongest men I had ever shaken hands with” (Dickey, 11). He also perceives himself to be lacking in the necessary drive to be like Lewis, saying “I had nothing like his (Lewis’s) drive . . . he was . . . the first to take a chance” (Dickey, 12). Dickey presents Ed and Lewis as opposite ends of the masculine spectrum in order to give the reader a context to examine the characters’ personal transformations.

The drama unfolds when upon arriving at their destination in Georgia, the men split up with Ed and Bobby in one canoe, Lewis and Drew in another. As the men are going down the river, they get separated by turbulent waters. Hoping not to get too far apart from the other two men, especially their knowledgeable friend Lewis, Ed and Bobbie decide to pull over to shore. They are soon surprised by two sadistic hillbillies, with guns and a sick plan in mind for them. The two hillbillies capture Ed and Bobby, and sodomize Bobbie, while holding Ed at gun point, telling him he was next.

In this moment Lewis and Drew catch up to the men and Lewis kills one of the hillbillies with a bow and arrow, leaving the other hillbilly to escape into the forest. Ed is both horrified by the murder that Lewis committed and grateful for being saved. The power of the act of brutal heroism deeply affects Ed and he says “I moved, without being completely aware of movement, nearer to him. . . I would have followed him anywhere, and I realized that I was going to have to do just that” (Dickey, 111).

The brave act serves to highlight Ed’s insecurity and dependence on Lewis to be brave for both of them. After Lewis kills one of the hillbillies, family man Drew is very upset and wants to go to the authorities immediately and explain what has happened, but the others led by Lewis vote against that idea, thinking they would never be believed and would surely get in trouble. They decide to carry the hillbilly’s body to a remote location and bury it. This incident shows the reader that there is a sort of moral heroism that is often outshone by physical strength.

At this moment Ed is forced to decide whether he prefers to stand with physical might or moral right. Ed chooses to go with what he has always idealized- Lewis and his macho strength. Stranded out in the wilderness with only their canoes, the men decide to get back out on the river, knowing they can’t reach their destination in one day. Further down the river, while in the canoe Drew gets shot and killed from shore by the surviving hillbilly, and falls out of the canoe into the water. After finding Drew’s body, the men decide to bury him by sinking him in the river.

During the burial Ed says, “you were the best of us, Drew” (day 14). Add citation It is only at this moment that Ed truly appreciates the quiet strength of Drew and acknowledges the heroism behind his emphasis on going to the law. As night was coming, the men were hungry, so Lewis decides to do some fishing. While fishing Lewis breaks his leg and hops three miles for help. Lewis is totally incapacitated from his injury. On Lewis’ urging, Ed must now take over the role Lewis had of being the savior (Dickey, 129). It is now up to Ed to save himself, Bobby and Lewis.

Solo, Ed must climb a steep cliff in the dark, stalk and kill the remaining hillbilly. Doing this, Ed feels “the most entire aloneness that I have ever been given. ” For once, Ed feels his own self agency and strength. He finds “joy at the thought of where I was and what I was doing” (Dickey, 137). Determination pays off when Ed shoots and kills the remaining hillbilly and saves himself and his surviving friends. He now feels as though he assumed the qualities in Lewis that he had admired, all except the looks and the muscular body.

Yet the personal transformation is not over. He must also come to understand his own moral fibre. Getting ready to return home, Ed knows that in order to escape prosecution they must make up a story for the authorities and their loved ones about what happened. The men swear to never mention what really happened while on their trip. Upon returning home Ed has a lot of guilt for the murder of the hillbilly that he committed and for the lies he has told to his wife and the authorities to try and cover up what really happened.

Although Ed may feel he didn’t act correctly in lying, it did show him what he does believe in, and gave him the experiences needed to escape his mid-life crisis and to withstand great hardship. He now feels more appreciative of his own life, becomes a better businessman and rekindles his relationship with loved ones. In contrast, Bobby is not able to grow from the experience, and instead deals with the trauma by moving away. Ed and Lewis remain good friends and share with only each other the truth about what happened on their canoeing trip to Georgia.

In a final twist, Lewis sustains a permanent limp from his leg injury, and is no longer the picture of physical strength he once was. From this the reader understands that strength is an internal attribute that cannot rely on external physicality. And it is this strength that makes a strong and productive citizen. Researchers have also been exploring the concept that a forced engagement in an unfamiliar setting can have a positive effect on personal development, seeking to prove the theme authors like Dickey explore.

In a study entitled “Longitudinal Gains in Civic Development through School-based Required Service” (Metz and Youniss, 2005), researchers found that when community service and service learning were mandated as part of the curriculum to graduate from high school, they made great impacts on the student civic attitudes and behaviors, including potential voting patterns and active participation. It is important to note that the curriculum was not compromised or prejudiced by the existence of community service and learning because all service learning took place after school in the community.

Metz and Youniss proved that the longitudinal profit from this system was that being involved during the school year leads to increased civic responsibility and a deeper attachment to community. In a similar study, Singer (2002) made a thorough study of civic development in summer intern students, finding that working in the community positively affected the students civic participation. Identity development is also affected by service learning. Defined as “a subjective feeling of self-sameness and continuity over time,” identity is something that begins to be developed in adolescence and continues through adulthood (Kroger, 8).

Kroger and Green (1996) interviewed mid-life adults about prior life events which affected their identity and categorized them to include “critical life events” like the death of a friend (Drew from Deliverance), “exposure to cultural/social milieus/sources of knowledge” like volunteering at a homeless shelter or traveling and “internal changes” due to self-examination. The categories identified by Kroger and Green indicate that in addition to uncontrollable events like deaths, births, and wars, identity development can be encouraged through staged interactions.

This was demonstrated in a research study of undergraduate students required to participate in service projects for two to four years. Researchers noticed that students who participated in the service projects displayed more compound thinking patterns regarding relationships and openness to new ideas (Jones, 2004). The required service caused longitudinal gains on development. The small amount of service required for one part of a program benefited students’ later in life and affected their beliefs of civic responsibility, encouraging more self aware informed citizens.

Like Ed Gentry, doing something good for others helped the students better understand the world, personal agency and place within it. Schools are now recognizing that identity development is essential for student success in college. Critical thinking and awareness of self are even being tested through revamped testing like the SATs. In 2005 the College Board added a third section to the SATs equivalent to the former SAT II Writing section that forces students to make connections between their life experiences and their learning.

Colleges report that the test helps teachers and students focus on critical thinking which is essential for success (The College Board, 2004). In a 1999 summary of the benefits of service learning sponsored by the Kellog Foundation’s Learning in Deed initiative, research showed that service learning had a positive effect on students in four categories; personal and social development, civic responsibility, academic skills and knowledge, and career exploration and learning.

In addition, it improved the public’s perception of youth and schools, and improved the school atmosphere and student-teacher interaction (Billig, 1999). Yet despite the overwhelming evidence supporting the positive effects of service learning, it is still not mandated as a component of school curriculum. The 64% of schools who had enacted a program in 1999 did so of their own volition (Ibid). In 2001 President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act aimed at improving accountability of school curriculums for student success. The emphasis was put on testing to show student development (Billig and Brown, 2002).

Although the law allows for funding for alternative programs which foster tutoring and mentoring which could be allocated to service learning, the onus is on teachers and administrators to design and orchestrate these programs. The challenge is convincing the administrators of the 46% of schools who do not have a service component, that service learning will affect test scores enough to warrant the funding allocation to service learning programs (Ibid). This is problematic in poorer schools who barely have enough money to buy books, and is looking to use the new funding to cover necessary supplies.

The general perception is that service learning cuts into the basic skills education and may reduce test scores. Comprehensive implementation of service learning is now dependant upon the passionate few who understand the benefits of service learning for students and their communities. Community effects are undeniable, but a 2005 study of service learning among youth reported that only 38% of students had participated in a school mandated community activity (Corporation for National and Community Service, 2005). However, 74% of these students reported service learning from this activity.

Unfortunately, the service learning seems reserved for the best students, as 43% of students with a GPA of B+ or higher engaged in service activites versus 35% of those with lower GPAs. In addition, the students with lower grades engaged in service with fewer aspects of service learning. This is particularly unsettling because of the demonstrated benefits of service learning. The study also found that those students who engaged in community activities with service learning were three times more likely than those who had no service learning activities to believe that they can personally solve community problems (Ibid).

The net effect of having no universal standards of service learning is to create a further divide between students who are doing well and those who are not. The 2005 study also noted that private schools were more likely to include service learning than public schools which indicates that schools with more resources have the freedom to implement curriculums which teach civic values (Ibid). This means that schools in poor areas are producing more students who do not feel they can engage in and solve problems in their community.

The aspects of personal and community development so central to service learning are being denied to students just because they are doing poorly in school. The result is that half of the population is being encouraged to develop faster than the other, further giving them an advantage at college and later in life. The student doing poorly in a disadvantaged school is being unintentionally but inexorably left behind by the No Child Left Behind Act.

The evidence of the benefits of community service and service learning is manifest, and available everywhere from fiction novels like James Dickey’s Deliverance to researcher’s study results, to national standardized testing agencies. The US government even has an office devoted to information on service learning called the Corporation for National and Community Service. Yet despite the information, it has yet to be mandated as a necessary part of school curriculums.

This results in a growing gap between the education of students in rich and poor schools which threatens the very fabric of our communities. In order to have integrated communities serving all community members, a national community service learning component must be added to public school curriculums and be specifically and adequately funded. Otherwise, America faces a future where only those people living in rich communities feel able to be civically active. Political power will increasingly move away from poor and minority communities, who are being taught in school that service learning and community involvement is not for them.


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