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A Witness To Idealism
By Robert Coles
Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993, 334 pages

Robert Coles's mission in writing this book, as he explains in the introduction, is "to explore the 'service' we offer to others and, not incidentally, to ourselves. I am hoping to document the subjectivity, the phenomenology of service: the many ways such activity is rendered; the many rationales, impulses, and values served in the implementation of a particular effort; the achievements that take place, along with the missteps and failures; the personal opportunities and hazards; and the consequences — how this kind of work fits into a life." Mixing autobiographical reminiscence, analysis, and oral testimony, the book doubles as a record of many conversations about the nature of voluntary service, and as an account of Coles's own reflections on his work.

It a deeply insightful and throught-provoking study. As in many of his other books, Coles resists the temptation to generalize and offer "reductive" conclusions on the basis of the narratives he recounts. He is hesitant to delineate even such basic categories as types of service (political and social activism, community service, charity, religious and patriotic service, etc.). "I have tried to do some useful, even necessary sorting," he notes, "but I hope I have left room for overlap, for a blend of motives and deeds that, properly, cautions us against airtight conclusions and formulations." The result of this approach is not a theory of voluntary service so much as a multi-faceted picture of the service experience: the satisfactions and the hazards, the motivations and the consequences.

The book's central message is that volunteer work can have a transformative influence on those who heed the "call of service," even though they frequently experience doubts, misgivings, depression, and even a sense of futility and despair. According to Coles, the satisfactions of service are plentiful and sustaining, conferring importance on small interactions and providing affirmation to those involved — often in place of lasting social or political change. The volunteers who are most successful, he finds, are those who genuinely like the people they meet, who quickly lose the sense that they are martyrs making a sacrifice and, most importantly, who realize that they are getting something in return. Again and again, the stories affirm that service is not a hierarchy but a reciprocity in which the distinctions between teacher and pupil, giver and receiver, helper and helped constantly dissolve.

Throughout the book, Coles quotes his own teachers and mentors, people such as Dorothy Day, William Carlos Williams, and Anna Freud whom he feels are important role models for service. The words of Dorothy Day figure prominently in the text; the title of the book comes from her remark, "There is a call to us, a call of service — that we join with others to try to make things better in this world." Anna Freud, similarly, is quoted extensively. In one passage she warns that "among those who set themselves up as 'agents of change,' as philanthropists, as people of ethical credibility and ethical vision, there can be no shortage of vanity and conceit, of cruelty and selfishness, of lies and deception." Coles also invokes the words Martin Luther King Jr. to a group of activists one night: "Let us not do to others (as our opponents) do to us: try to put ourselves into one all-inclusive category — the virtuous ones as against the evil ones, or the decent ones against the malicious, prejudiced ones, or the well-educated as against the ignorant." King cautioned that "if the 'us' or 'them' mentality takes hold," then "we do, actually, begin to run the risk of joining ranks with the very people we are opposing."

Coles feels that service ought to be a critical component of higher education. Reflecting on our ties to the larger community, and what we are able to offer it as individuals is, after all, what colleges and universities are all about. "A major consequence of community service for many, young and old alike," he writes in the book's closing pages, "is an inclination to think about those words 'community' and 'service,' to seek in them some larger vision that might hold the attention of that community known as a nation and that institution dedicated to serving the people, known as government."

Related essay: A Way of Seeing: The Work of Robert Coles

A bibliographic essay by Scott London

Copyright 1995 by Scott London. All rights reserved.