INSIDE Chico State
0 February 5, 2004
Volume 34 Number 7
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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Honors Class Explores the Nature of Altruism

Andrew Flescher, Religious Studies, and Daniel Worthen, Psychology

Andrew Flescher, Religious Studies, and Daniel Worthen, Psychology
Photos by Kathleen McPartland

Like many of the altruists and students who shadowed them, Judy Sitton and student Emily Noble became friends as they worked together.

Like many of the altruists and students who shadowed them, Judy Sitton and student Emily Noble became friends as they worked together.

  • What motivates altruism?
  • Is self-interest lurking behind our motivations?
  • Why should we be altruistic?

Exploring these intriguing questions both theoretically and practically was the goal of the course that religious studies professor Andrew Flescher, author of Heroes, Saints, and Ordinary Morality (Georgetown University Press, 2003), and psychology professor Daniel Worthen described as "perhaps one of the hardest courses a student has taken at CSU, Chico."

A joint 6-unit Psychology/Religious Studies Honors capstone course (PSY/RS136H), this experimental class paired students with "community altruists" engaged in social advocacy, welfare, or service. Students were expected to spend four to five hours per week shadowing their altruist, in addition to a heavy schedule of course work that focused on philosophical, psychological, religious, biological, economic, and sociological approaches to accounting for selfless behavior.

Adam Dondro, Presidential Scholar and Associated Students executive vice president, shadowed Jack and Nancy Fox, who serve on half a dozen different local boards and committees. Dondro participated in a Rotary Christmas shopping expedition with local elementary children and helped buy, wrap, and deliver Christmas gifts for two families adopted by the Foxes. Once a week, the Foxes invited him for dinner and philosophical talk. "Perhaps that was more valuable to Adam than just observing us in the community," Jack Fox said.

Dondro declared the class a "once-in-a-lifetime experience." He added, "In college, we're focused on our careers. It's good to remember that there are other goals in life, or that you can even make giving to people in need your career."

Molly Priest said shadowing Greg Higgins and Kathy Halloran of the Chico Cat Coalition made her demand more of herself. "I could see people living what we learned in textbooks." She noted that the students learned that people who accomplish great things are not necessarily special—they are often everyday people who do amazing things.

Community altruist Judy Sitton stated that the motivation for altruism is "giving back to those who have helped me—the community, Chico State, campus programs. For the altruist, there is a level of satisfaction that comes when you know you are helping others." Recognition, although nice, she said, is "way at the bottom of the list of reasons you do this."

Sitton, who worked with student Emily Noble, said the experience was not a one-way exchange. "Emily had great, thought-provoking questions that made me evaluate what I get out of the things I do and what people I'm serving reap from it." Noble shadowed Sitton to meetings of Students in Free Enterprise and became a SIFE member herself. The two attended board meetings for the proposed Northern California National History Museum, the Chico Chamber of Commerce's Women's Achievement Awards celebration, and a task force on the future of Butte County.

Siblings Nicki and Ben Seigler shadowed then-Director Katy Thoma at the Jesus Center, serving food to the homeless, attending a fund-raiser, and accompanying her to speaking engagements. Having students observing her work as an intellectual exercise "makes me laugh," Thoma said, because "I'm just doing what I'm supposed to do."

"The students and their altruists made it the course it became," said Flescher. "The altruists were ambassadors for the community, and the students were ambassadors for the university."

Everyone agreed that this was no easy class, with requirements beyond the usual expectations for an undergraduate 6-unit course load. There were 250 pages of reading every week, from such diverse authors as Albert Camus, Immanuel Kant, Martin Luther King, and Iris Murdoch, with two interpretive papers and two examinations on readings. Students kept a journal of their fieldwork experience, wrote about their learning in a 25-page paper, and highlighted their shadowing experience in a presentation.

"Easy is not one of the words to describe this class," said Dondro. "The reading is extensive and demanding, scheduling time with the altruists is difficult, the tests are challenging... and it's all worth it!"

Flescher said the professors wanted to push the students beyond their perceived limitations: "We throw out the comfort factor. We want to frustrate them. We grade them harshly. It's a polemic against complacency."

Even so, Priest thought the professors were "phenomenal so energetic and passionate about what they were teaching," and Dondro called the class "the kind of experience that has a lasting impact on a student's life."

"What Motivates Altruism?" will be offered again this fall. "It should get better every time we teach it," said Worthen. Both professors acknowledged the encouragement of Interim President Scott McNall; Associate Provost Dennis Rothermel; and Honors Program Director Andrea Lerner. "They gave us free rein," said Flescher. "It was a great example of administration backing faculty."

Francine Gair

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