Community Columns

In a way, 'Pay It Forward' experiment succeeded

Since my article "Experiment in altruism fails badly" ran July 8, many people have expressed strong opinions on the exercise I gave my Human Relations class last spring. I gave each student $25, instructing them to pay it forward and then report on what happened as they used the funds for the betterment of others.

One woman told me that her husband was chagrined to the point of tears as he read how only three students did anything with the money.

Another told me she and her two teenage granddaughters in another state have exchanged a lively string of e-mails since she sent them the piece. Teachers from the university level to junior high say their students brought up and discussed the piece in class. Some teachers plan to do so when school commences in the fall.

Most comments were supportive, though one man opined that I was lucky it wasn't his kid I gave money to because he would have demanded the superintendent take me to task for my stupid decision.

I received many suggestions as to what would have gotten better results: Tying the pay-it- forward assignment to a grade, allowing less time for the action, reminding students often, and giving ideas on how they should pay it forward.

These suggestions, while meant to be constructive, would have negated the tests of character, altruism and personal drive which the assignment revealed.

Had I done any of these, the outcome would have been similar to the scientist who manipulates data and variables to achieve a desired result.

At some point, each of those students reached into the envelope I gave them and spent the money on themselves -- money they knew was entrusted to them to be spent on others.

What flashed through their minds and hearts, if anything, as they reached for those two bills, a twenty and a five? A pang of guilt? A thought of justification? A slight hesitation? A momentary battle of conscience, or no qualms at all?

As an educator, I would rather have the results be brutally real and startlingly revealing.

I would rather have those results start the discussion that has ensued, for that is where teaching begins.

At least the students didn't turn in contrived reports extolling the difference they made in the world because they were coerced, cajoled and emotionally manipulated into doing what hopefully one day will come naturally.

Is character education in the classroom simply focusing on a trait a month, or are students learning what character is and how their own values form their character? Are we helping them integrate classroom learning into life situations?

A therapist friend contends that this kind of exercise may require a longer incubation period because the part of the brain that makes value decisions is still under development for 17- and 18-year-olds. This friend suggests the lesson may pay off in the distant future.

The bottom line: I think the money was well invested.

Young people, parents, teachers, grandparents, even my dental assistant and her kids, are talking. Heartfelt conversations have taken place. Civil discourse has occurred. That's not a bad -- though unintended -- payoff. After all, I meant this less as an assignment and more as an opportunity.

I haven't given up. Maybe I have helped plant a small seed of altruism that simply needs the nourishment of time and the water of life experience in order to germinate and grow.

I'd like to think so. Happy gardening!

Johnson teaches at Davis High School in Modesto.

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