Is There Learning in Service Learning?

Early this year, North Carolina State announced the creation of a new campus entity, the Center for Excellence in Curricular Engagement. Its purpose is to spread “service-learning” through the NC State curriculum. The press release claims, “Service-learning has taken North Carolina State University students on some of the most enriching, engaging and transformative experiences of their college years….”

Service-learning is based on the idea that a student’s formal coursework can (and usually should) be enhanced by the addition of community service work. Its proponents say that blending in “service” with the usual educational material of reading books, class lectures and discussions, papers and exams makes for a richer and even “transformative” experience for students.

Most professors approve of service-learning. The new Almanac edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education tells us in its section on opinions of faculty members that 84.7 percent agree with the statement, “Colleges should encourage students to be involved in community service activities,” while only 19.4 percent agree that “Including community service as a part of a course is a poor use of resources.”

NC State’s Chancellor James Oblinger is enthusiastic about service-learning, saying that the new Center “will help faculty, students, and community members ‘co-create’ significant opportunities to deepen student learning, enhance the work of community organizations, and advance knowledge across the university’s course offerings.”

Sounds like a great innovation. Most colleges and universities have jumped aboard this movement since it began in the mid-90s. It makes you wonder how they could have missed something so good for so long – rather as if automobile makers just recently thought of putting rear-view mirrors on cars.

An answer to that question might be that service-learning isn’t actually a pedagogical improvement at all. That is the view of Towson University professor John Egger. Egger’s article “No Service to Learning: ‘Service-Learning’ Reappraised” appears in the Spring 2008 issue of Academic Questions (a print-only journal with copies available on request). It is a strong dissent from the support given for service-learning by Chancellor Oblinger and most other higher education leaders.

Egger writes, “[W]rapping a veneer of learning over community service conceals the promotion of a particular social agenda, wastes students’ valuable time and other resources, and its learning goal actually weakens students’ respect for the processes of social interaction that is conveyed by a good liberal education.”

That’s a strong attack, but worth considering.

Egger’s primary contention is that service-learning is aimed not at helping the student improve himself by acquiring useful, work-related information through “hands-on” experience (as has long been the case with traditional student internships), but rather at making the student feel a sense of obligation for the misfortunes of other people. He writes, “It thus appears that the learning goal of service-learning is for the student to embrace a philosophical position that would best be identified as socialist or tribal, but that some might prefer to call communitarian…. “ The “service” component of service-learning, Egger maintains, “isn’t really learning at all,” but instead is a means of promoting a political ideology.

That observation helps to explain the tilt that we find as to the sorts of “service” that are acceptable. Auburn University professor Robert Lawson , who has blogged here on his negative view of service-learning) writes in a personal email, “What if a student wanted to do anti-abortion counseling services? I have personal knowledge of a student who was told that this kind of thing wasn’t ‘service.’ Meanwhile, I also know students who have done service learning projects at Planned Parenthood….The reality is that service-learning advocates define service learning to include only those non-profit service activities consistent with a left-wing, progressive world view.”

Perhaps someone can point to counter-examples, but from what I have gleaned from talking with students and looking at syllabi from service-learning courses, Professor Lawson’s generalization seems accurate. Working for ideologically liberal groups is good, while working for ideologically conservative groups or any profit-making entity is out of the question. That makes sense if, as Egger maintains, one of the goals of service-learning is to promote a communitarian philosophy.

It certainly is not true that every service experience is aimed at inculcating political views of some sort. Some East Carolina students, for example, fulfilled their service requirements for a Health course by working at the Greenville Food Bank. One writes about her work with the Food Bank here. Having myself done some work at a food bank with one of my sons, I know exactly what this student is talking about – you spend hours in sorting the good food from the bad and bagging the good for consumption by needy people. There is nothing philosophical about it.

The problem is that there is no evident connection between the service work and the academic content of the course. East Carolina’s Health 1050 course focuses on “mental, social, and physical health issues in modern society” and it “integrates service-learning to enhance academic achievement, build citizenship skills and civic engagement related to health issues in society.” Sorting sweet potatoes at the food bank is a helpful thing to do, but exactly what does the student learn about any “health issue”? (Similarly, does volunteering with the Special Olympics or a day-care center, as other students did, necessarily educate students about health issues?)

Doing volunteer work for charitable groups is laudable. It may, as these students write, have an uplifting effect, but the question is why educational institutions should allocate time that students could put into the study of course material – that is, learning a field of knowledge – into “service” work instead.

Students who take service-learning courses usually have to devote a significant number of hours to the volunteer work (25 hours for the ECU Health course) and a substantial amount of class time is spent in “reflection sessions” where students are expected to talk about their service experiences. Is there any real learning in those sessions?

In his new book Save the World on Your Own Time, Stanley Fish – by no stretch of the imagination a conservative – says, “I have no objection to internship programs, community outreach, peer tutoring, service learning, etc., as long as they are not thought of as satisfying graduation or grade requirements.” The point of his book is that professors should stick to teaching their subjects. Requiring students to do nice things that are tangential to the course material isn’t sticking to the subject.

If there are instances where direct experience might help in learning the subject matter of the course, that’s fine. Practice teaching would be one example. But that is something quite different from requiring students to work at just any charitable organization.

My sense is that service-learning is a fad popular among professors who want to do their utmost to, as Fish puts it, save the world. Compelling students to do volunteer work in order to get their credits makes the professors feel good and may also promote the dearly-held belief many of them have that the country needs more government activism to ameliorate inequality.

College leaders ought to insist that professors teaching “service-learning” courses show that the service and “reflection” required have more than a tenuous connection with the goal of having students master the body of knowledge the course is supposed to convey. Unless it’s clear that the “service” component is truly the best way to teach students the academic content, it ought to be dropped.