"Learning to Care: Elementary Kindness in an Age of Indifference," by Robert Wuthnow (Oxford University Press, 287 pp.; $25, hardcover).
Like many people, I am an inveterate volunteer. Since I was 16 I have helped in a Head Start classroom, coached Little League, taught writing in my children's elementary school, visited in nursing homes, taught Presbyterian Sunday school, acted as bouncer in a Catholic Worker dining room, mentored (or tried to) a fatherless boy, and served on numberless church committees. There have been few periods of my life when I was not actively volunteering, and most of the time I have been involved with several programs.
None of this seems in the least remarkable to me. I have no sense of great sacrifices, nor do I believe that I have accomplished great things. I hope my main motive for volunteering is concern for people with needs. But I also volunteer because I enjoy it, because I feel an obligation to share my good fortune, and because I think volunteering makes me a more rounded person. During the years when I worked in the Catholic Worker dining room, for example, I enjoyed knowing many of the homeless in my community by name, and I thought I was spiritually and intellectually better off for regular contact with poor people. I hoped I did some good for them, but I was sure I did good for myself.
Voluntarism is an old and well-worn path for Americans, but lately it has been attracting unfamiliar attention. The many books and articles calling on America to rekindle its civic spirit often mention the importance of volunteer efforts. President Clinton has staked a good deal of his political reputation on Americorps, a program to organize and fund full-time "volunteers." Some high schools require volunteering ...