One of the things that I have mentioned from time to time in my blog is my desire to impart into the Columban DNA an ethos of service, as opposed to an attitude of entitlement. I know I have written about this before, but someone said to me recently, ‘I am not sure that people know what you mean when you talk about service.’ In other words, it sounds good but it is in danger of being meaningless without some clarification.
Let me start by looking at entitlement, because the positive will make more sense in the light of the negative. Now I am not saying that I think our pupils here at St. Columba’s feel entitled, but it is a charge that is sometimes levelled at children from private schools in general. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant because it is still out there and maybe, sometimes, there is some truth in it. In the UK it is an accusation that is sometimes made against those from certain schools and backgrounds who seem to think that the world owes them a living, that they should get into the best universities and have the best of everything, simply because of their background and their education. It causes people to look down on others who are not from the ‘right school’ or do the right kind of work or wear the right kind of clothes. Now I obviously don’t think that there is anything wrong with having a fantastic education, but I do object if it instils arrogance. A great education is not about a string of top grades but about the development of character. It has been said, rightly, that ‘education is what you have left when you have forgotten everything you were taught.’ In other words it is about who you are, not what is on your CV.
Entitlement says, ‘what can other people do for me,’ or ‘why am I not appreciated as much as I deserve?’ It is the attitude of an American President who says, ‘I did not receive the appreciation I deserved for the John McCain funeral,’ as if somehow acting decently deserves a special mention. It says, ‘it doesn’t matter if I leave a mess because someone is paid to clear up after me.’ It says ‘there is no point in trying to do the right thing if no one is going to notice and thank me for it.’ It is unattractive and makes other people feel like second class citizens.
The spirit of service is very different. It says, ‘what can I do to make the life of other people better,’ or ‘how can I help other people to cope with the stresses and strains of life. How can I help them bear their burdens and their worries?’ It means one serves because it is the right thing to do, not because it gets one noticed. Service is not just about helping old ladies across the road, but rather an attitude to life. One of the great prayers in chapel says that we should ‘labour and ask for no reward, save that of knowing that we do Your will.’ Doing the right thing is its own reward. Character, as they say, is how you behave when no one is watching.
That is what I mean by ‘service,’ but because it is an impossible thing to measure it is also very difficult to instil. We do need to talk about it, but perhaps it is caught rather than taught. Our children here don’t have time to get involved in numerous service projects, although there is perhaps room for more, particularly in the ‘Transition Year.’ I hope, however, that they are developing an attitude that means they look out for those around them in their immediate community, while also taking a keen interest in the wider world. They should hurt when they see people being gunned down in New Zealand or trapped in floods in Mozambique. They should figure out how they can live a more sustainable lifestyle, rather than leaving it to others to make the changes needed to protect the future of the planet.
That might all sounds a bit woolly, but actually it is the most important thing our children can learn.