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T. Elijah Hawkes Headshot

The Problem with Service Learning

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It's August, back to school time, and we've entered a period during which a new regime of high stakes tests are rolling-out, with a fresh chorus of "failure" and "privatize" singing out from the testing results. As I've written recently, public schools are vulnerable, and because of this our schools need to be even more meaningfully integrated into our communities.

One way schools currently make community connections is through service learning or community service, typically as elements of after-school or extra-curricular activities. These seem to be positive experiences for those involved. We generally don't question it: Community service, it's a good thing.

But, I've been re-reading a collection of John Dewey's essays from the 1930's and he's making me take a second look.

Dewey is writing at a time of wealth disparity similar to our own. And, as we can see in our time, he notices many substantial gestures of charity and philanthropy. Dewey acknowledges them as expressions of "good will and altruism." But he also "partly" sees them as "the manifestation of an uneasy conscience." He says that such acts of generosity "testify to a realization that a regime of industry carried on for private gain does not satisfy the full human nature of even those who profit by it."

And he notes that the acts of charity affirm an impulse toward "social responsibility which the system as a system denies." Hmm. Can we also reflect on community service in this light? Here's my thinking:

I believe that classrooms lacking citizenship components, curriculum that is not oriented to solving real-world problems and grappling with deep and mature questions, can leave us feeling incomplete. And so we often seek completeness in other gestures of citizenship - often as after-thoughts, in the after school hours, and only occasionally.

Instead, I think our core curriculum should have a have citizenship focus through-and-through. The best service we can render our communities is a program of study that engages all of our young people exploring and even trying to solve some of the important citizenship challenges our society is facing.

And so, as we ready for the students' return this year, I'll briefly celebrate three new efforts that my colleagues are making to integrate citizenship and service directly into the day-to-day curriculum of our school in Randolph, VT.

  • The core teachers of the 7th grade are revising the traditional 7th grade community service requirement. They perceived that the kids' commitment to their service projects was often superficial, and that completion of the work spoke more to the capacity of parents to support the project than to any real motivation in the child. Instead, these teachers are integrating citizenship expectations and real-world applications of learning, into each of the new interdisciplinary units that they are designing.
  • Our high school Spanish teacher is creating a unit of study on migrant labor in Vermont. Our state's fields and barns are increasingly peopled with workers from South America - and significant political and cultural challenges are surfacing. My colleague will have to tread carefully in this area where confidentiality, labor rights and legal status are sensitive issues. Done well, however, this project will give real relevance to the local application of a foreign language, and offer the students exposure to the social and economic issues that arise when you have a diverse, multi-lingual, immigrant labor force in your state.
  • The teachers of our 9th Grade Humanities course, focused on Europe's Middle Ages and the Renaissance, opened a discussion last spring about how to invest their curriculum with more contemporary citizenship components. Well, there's a lot of war that one can study in European history, including the ethics of war and machinations of empire. And so there is strong potential for the themes of the course to tie into our own nation's recent war-making. Our town has a rich tradition of military families. A veterans' cemetery and veterans' entrepreneurial center are just up the road. In a neighboring town there is a shelter where struggling veterans can have basic needs met. The study of history will train our students in the kind of questions that historians ask about war and how it impacts a society. They can then engage our local community members and institutions, ask those same questions, study and reflect back the responses.

I'm not saying that I don't want community service to happen at my school - or yours. I hope and expect that the some of the students who meet our homeless veterans or our migrant farm workers will translate that experience into concrete gestures of generosity and service. My point is that the deeper academic study of those people's circumstances and stories - undertaken by all students, and all teachers, as part of the academic curriculum - is what really must be the beating heart of what citizenship and service mean in schools.

For John Dewey's ghost also tells me this, which I came across in his obituary: Democracy "'cannot go forward unless the intelligence of the mass of people is educated to understand the social realities of their own time.'" On that note, let the school year begin!