School Voluntarism, Social Capital, and Civil Society
DANIEL J. BROWN
During the mid-1980s, I became acquainted with a number of public elementary schools rich in volunteers. Although I saw that the donation of volunteers' time constituted a substantial resource for the schools, the existence of so many volunteers presented a paradox for me. My impressions of public education had led me to believe that its raison d'être was to create schools that did not depend much on their communities for support. Ostensibly, they could be independent of their settings and largely free of community constraints. Yet my exposure to these schools showed that volunteer parents contributed actively to programs in public schools and that administrators appeared to welcome them. Was this activity evidence of subversive action designed to undermine the tenets of public education? Or was something else at work? Were these school volunteers actually important or were they simply doing nice things, that is, making insignificant contributions? Were they, in a quiet way, adding something special to the life of their schools?
The use of volunteers in public schools is an example of what has come to be called civil society (Berger & Neuhaus, 1977). The mediating structures, particularly family and neighborhood, are given the job of supplementing the tasks of a governmental agency, specifically a school. On the one hand, the use of mediating structures constitutes a most promising way of addressing some of the problems schools and societies face. On the other hand, they are a necessary but not an entirely certain mechanism to help restore moral society (Himmelfarb, 1998).