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25 September 2012

Whom Is Service Learning Servicing?

Service Learning, or less commonly Civic Learning, is all the buzz in higher education currently. On the surface, Service Learning seems great. It (perhaps) facilitates greater student learning by forcing them to apply in the real world what they have received in the traditional classroom. I'd like to point to two problems that I see with Service Learning.

First, at least as far as I have seen, most Service Learning projects do not actually attempt to implement the academic lessons with which they are associated. Take a common one, poverty. Students will spend some time in the classroom reading, discussing, and being lectured to about how we define poverty, the demographics of poverty, the history of the academic and political responses to poverty, and the structural nature of poverty. Then, professors will take their students to volunteer for a few hours at a soup kitchen or a homeless shelter. These are typical "Band-Aid," surface-level responses to poverty, not fixes. Moreover, these kinds of responses in practice buttresses the status quo which actually perpetuate poverty. Students learn that while those crazy ideas they read about are all well and good, they can pat themselves on the back for being morally righteous people having done something deceptively simple. Service Learning of this kind actually undoes the critical learning that we claim to value.

Second, our collective academic memory is short. There is rarely anything truly new under the sun, and Service Learning is no exception. Karl Marx early on charged that "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it." Later Marxians labeled this imperative Praxis. The academe generally dismissed Praxis and, instead, focused on pure research and education. It was one thing to talk and write with relative impunity about controversial ideas, but it was deemed far too radical to attempt to follow through with the application that these ideas suggested. I fear that Service Learning does the same disservice. It is difficult both practically and politically to implement a Service Learning project that would do justice to the lessons we hope to teach our students.

So, while I am quite skeptical of Service Learning as it is currently done, I do believe that, if recontextualized, it could lead us to revisit Praxis as a neglected part of the universal mission of the academy.

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