12/23/2013 03:27 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2014

Santa Earns A Ph.D.

With the approach of the winter solstice, daytime ebbs to what sometimes seems a brief flickering. In these quite-literally darkest days of the year, numerous cultures and faiths shine a spotlight -- or more accurately a warm, candlelight glow -- on the power of human interconnectedness to see us through. As I reflect on the origins and enduring impulse behind this season of giving, I believe that a good measure of the credit goes to the ways in which it taps into the wonder, awe and openness of childhood.

Consider that, at other times of the year, a figure such as Santa Claus might seem too whimsical or outlandish for much discussion. This week, we see him featured prominently in a debate among adults on the historical figure and subsequent cultural appropriations involved in the evolution of the mythology. Without becoming mired in that particular conversation, I refer to it to illustrate the ways in which this season helps us access touchstones that are considered "childish" in some context yet actually have far deeper, adult ramifications.

Extending the concept to education, for example, it is widely understood that young children learn through play. Our brains are wired to grasp the world around us through interaction. While our capacity for processing and critical thought certainly advances in sophistication with age, the architecture of the mind does not become so radically different. We still learn best when we can interact with the subject of our inquiry in a meaningful way and see positive benefits of our discoveries and action on the world around us.

Understanding this basic pedagogical underpinning, many institutions have embedded service-learning and community service into their learning culture throughout the year. The symbiotic relationship between service and learning underscores the critical role of higher education institutions not only for their students but also for the larger community in which they serve. However, the road to this understanding has been challenging at times. As Ellen Cushman explained in her editorial for the October 2000 issue of Language and Learning Across the Disciplines, "Some faculty and administrators do not value nor support their colleagues' efforts to start and sustain service learning programs because they perceive these programs as dispensable to the main work of the university." Cushman cites Brooke Hessler's essay "Composing an Institutional Identity: The Terms of Community Service in Higher Education" as recommending the term "applied scholarship" to help service-learning gain traction in the face of such opposition. She explains, "This name invokes both 'inquiry and action.'"

Service-learning opportunities give students a chance to assess how the knowledge and skills learned in the classroom translate into a variety of settings. Service-learning also allows students to examine career options, build leadership skills and test abilities in the context of more fully understanding, and then contributing to their community. Through projects that empower and make a lasting difference, students discover not only contact and employment opportunities, but in the long run, career and personal satisfaction.

While the specific example of Santa Claus could be seen as a throwback to the paternalistic, imbalanced service-learning approach of decades past (privileged students helicoptering briefly in and out of a community), today's service-learning programs are calibrated to involve a much fuller spirit of collaboration. They embrace a more nuanced understanding of what Santa and holiday gift-giving represent -- the reciprocal respect and interconnectedness among individuals. In that spirit (and if our inner children were in charge) Santa would certainly be deserving of a doctorate degree in the discipline of inspirational example-setting.