e-mail us


Spring breaks can lead to breakthroughs


Alternative spring breaks are now in fashion. While college hedonists hie off to Miami’s South Beach, Cancún or the Caribbean to frolic and pursue the ABCs of traditional spring breaks -- abusing, boozing and cruising -- many of their schoolmates fan out to tutor on Indian reservations, renovate houses in Appalachia, serve meals in big-city homeless shelters, build houses with Habitat for Humanity or volunteer in social service programs from Best Buddies to Special Olympics.

Much praise is owed these students, as well as to campus ministers, professors and service learning coordinators who organize the trips. Thanks to both students and administrators, experiential knowledge is now considered as academically valuable as theoretical knowledge is.

It wasn’t always that way. Brow-furrowing professors dismissed experiential learning as fluff: The mission of higher education is to produce thinkers, not social workers. These put-downs didn’t prevail. Colleges now routinely offer credit courses tied to service. Classroom lectures, discussions and assigned readings coexist with the learning that results from service.

But another criticism endures, one with more substance. Ladling stew in soup kitchens during spring break is fine but it remains do-gooder slumming unless twinned with learning about governmental policies that allow poverty to persist for the many while wealth increases for the few. Putting up drywall in ghetto houses is fine, but it remains idle charity unless accompanied by knowledge about governmental and corporate deals that keep money flowing to build weapons but not affordable housing.

Feeling good about serving poor people needs to be twinned with feeling angry about why they are poor.

Many spring break organizers understand this, especially those who bring students to Washington. Every spring, I meet with college groups. They camp everywhere from church basements to alumni homes. Their volunteer work is girded by daily field trips to advocacy groups, federal agencies and social justice non-profits.

In four vans, 23 University of Notre Dame students drove 12 hours from their South Bend, Ind., campus in early March. Jay Brandenberger, Notre Dame’s director of Experiential Learning and Developmental Research, sees Washington not only as a site for students to volunteer but, more important, to “examine the structures that underlie complex social concerns.”

Washington is Structure City, glued by the reality of what politics truly is: who decides where the money goes. Brandenberger sees the annual trips to Washington as “academically based immersion opportunities.” Courses offered through the Center for Social Concerns -- the soul of Notre Dame’s campus -- include “Power and Change in American Society,” “Students and Social Change” and “Leadership and Social Responsibility.”

Jim Goodmann, director of campus ministry at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, is bringing more than 20 students to Washington April 7-13, to stay at the Community for Creative Nonviolence. “Washington is chosen,” Goodmann says, “because it is the government center. Students are invited to see the trip as involving a process -- exposure to the problems of poverty and homelessness, of experience in serving the people afflicted, of appealing to legislatures for policy changes and, finally, of direct nonviolent action before an often inattentive government and public. That this year’s trip is during Holy Week lends further drama to the experience. Students are also invited to contemplate where and how Christ continues to be crucified among members of our society.”

Loras’ students, along with students from nearby Clarke College, visit the Children’s Defense Fund, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and Network, the national Catholic social justice lobby. This is the 18th year that Loras and Clarke students have taken spring breaks in Washington. As with other college groups, they don’t come to gaze or gasp at artificial Washington, the city of big buildings, oversized egos and giant statues of generals on horses. Instead, they plunge into the real city, the one that has some six homeless shelters between the White House and the Capitol, the nation’s highest child poverty rate and its highest high school dropout rate.

One of the most welcoming hosts for collegians is the Catholic Worker community at Dorothy Day House. In mid-March, it took in nine students from Minnesota’s St. Thomas University. One of their tour guides and educators was Arthur Laffin, the often-jailed pacifist and writer. His talks to the students about nonviolent protests were backed by trips to antiwar demonstrations at the Pentagon and the White House.

Two other experienced spring break hosts are Bill and Sharon Murphy of Mary House, the 20-year-old low-income housing program in Northeast Washington that currently serves more than 32 families. Students do yard work, plant seeds, renovate apartments, tutor children, haul furniture and prepare meals.

“At the start of the week,” says Sharon Murphy of her college visitors, “they’re idealistic. They sincerely want to help the poor. But after meeting every evening with the trip organizers and us to talk about what they did during the day, they begin moving intellectually from what they thought they accomplished to struggling with questions about genuine social reform that can’t be answered on a spring break.”

What is Murphy’s role in this? “To help them understand that it’s natural to be overwhelmed. I like them to leave Washington with a taste of that, and perhaps with feelings of positive anger at the way things are. Back at their schools, decisions to get involved, or more involved, are often made.”

To be lasting, spring break learning is not about tests, homework, grades or other academic work. It is about disruptions, the personal kind: an awareness that changing the system means changing the self by questioning policies that allow militarism, poverty and racism to persist, and then acting on the answers. Spring breaks should be about breakthroughs.

Colman McCarthy, author of All of One Peace: Essays on Nonviolence, directs the Center for Teaching Peace, Washington. His e-mail address is colman@clark.net

National Catholic Reporter, April 13, 2001