Service Learning Controversy

Service Learning Controversy

William C. Kashatus
Philadelphia Inquirer
September 28, 1997

Yesterday the University of Pennsylvania hosted a local initiative called “Philadelphia’s Promise.” The aim is to find ways to implement the various ideas raised during last April’s volunteerism summit.

One of those good ideas – a good idea we should put into action, and soon – is service learning.

I realize that many educators and parents have reservations about educational reform. But if implemented wisely, service learning can be a powerful response to student apathy. It’s a dynamic way of teaching, perhaps the most effective school reform in recent history.

A definition is in order. You may be familiar with “community service” programs, which promote volunteerism by stressing its intangible rewards. In service learning, the volunteer experience becomes part of the students’ curriculum. They are given structured time to think, talk, or write about what they did and saw. Stress is laid on preparation beforehand and reflection afterward. That enhances both the academic program (by extending it beyond the classroom and into the community) and the moral education of students (by teaching them to care for others).

You can use service learning not just to get students to volunteer but also to teach academic subjects. You could teach environmental science, for example, by having your students adopt a local park, clean it up and care for the wildlife living there. You could teach U.S. history by having students create oral history projects, in which they record the recollections of the elderly. They may form closer ties with the elderly while learning a great deal about the past.

And you can use service learning to get students interested in their own educations. When they tutor the illiterate, feed the homeless, and play with terminally ill children, they learn invaluable lessons about their own lives and the privilege and necessity of becoming educated. Such projects empower students to see the point in learning.

Recent studies conducted by the National Center for Service Learning indicate that service learning can complement course work in most academic disciplines and give students valuable experience in the fields of health care, social work, urban planning, and other humanitarian professions. Teachers not only can impart knowledge and practical skills; they can also help students cultivate social responsibility and civic-mindedness. What’s more, recent national surveys reported in the American Education Research Journal and the Chronicle of Higher Education reveal that nearly two out of three incoming college freshmen performed some type of meaningful service in their junior or senior year of high school.

Service is appealing to young people because it imparts a greater sense of personal responsibility, eases the painful transition from school to the workaday world, imparts self-esteem, builds cooperative learning skills, and promotes empathy and compassion for others. That is why the federal government, under the National Service Trust Act of 1993, has already budgeted millions of dollars for service learning programs in schools across the nation. Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont as well as many urban school districts nationwide have already begun major service learning initiatives with links to graduation requirements.

Hard to imagine that anyone truly concerned about the education of young people would oppose service learning, but many do. Because it’s relatively new, many teachers tend to treat it as synonymous with “community service,” which has traditionally been part of the extra-curriculum. While they may be able to appreciate the value of service to the moral education of students, many teachers initially are unable – or sometimes unwilling – to grasp the relationship between what amounts to an experiential education and the cognitive skills they teach in their classroom. Instead, they view service as another “add-on,” which can only detract from the time they have to teach the “real” content and skills in their subjects.

Some parents see the initiative as “involuntary servitude,” forcing their children to “submit to a government-approved belief in altruism.” We saw this attitude in a recent suit against the Bethlehem, Pa., school district for attempting to mandate a 60-hour service learning requirement.

If service learning is to succeed in our schools, we have to sell it more effectively. Teachers must be convinced that, far from compromising the academic integrity of their subject, it can only enhance it by giving students the opportunity to apply their knowledge and skills as well as reading, writing, or discussing them.

Similarly, parents who oppose the initiative must be convinced that the real issue is not whether service learning should be required or not, but whether our schools are providing a meaningful education for our children that nurtures personal accountability, awareness of their responsibility to society, and an appreciation for learning itself. If the local summit can accomplish these things, then it will be an unconditional success.

Whether we admit it or not, education inevitably involves values. Service learning challenges us to ask the difficult questions: Do we value the moral and intellectual development of our children? Are we adequately preparing them to enter society equipped with the practical knowledge, skills and compassion for others that they will need to become constructive citizens? If not, then why not begin to try?