Thursday, August 6, 2009

What is radical about service-learning?

A couple of days back, Inside Higher Ed ran an interview with the authors of a new book, The Unheard Voices, reporting the disappointment of community organizations with service-learning. The gist of the complaint is that service-learning students are more trouble than they are worth--they take a lot of supervision, leave after a short time, and may require more work from staff than they can give to the community. The unheard voices, in the authors' view, are those of community organizations who have to deal with these difficulties.

Their argument is undoubtedly true. (The opposite would be true, as well. That is, colleges and universities, and their students could say that community organizations are tough to work with and they would be right in saying it.) But it points out to me one of the major failings of service-learning: it has become too much about service.

This may seem a strange problem, but service-learning in its origins was as much a way of organizing relationships as it was getting some service done for the community. It is the organization of relationships, not the acts of service, that have the most radical potential for change in civic life and higher ed.

When a partnership is simply about providing volunteers, its value is inevitably judged by the quality of the volunteers. But service-learning partnerships are supposed to be about much more. They are a way of making democracy visible. Participants in the partnership (which to be healthy really needs far more than two partners) have to be committed to each other and to finding a response to something--a problem, an opportunity, a challenge, a need. Further, they are committed to doing it in a networked way, where each participant gives what she/he can. The result is a richly interconnected group, one that can change or resist change as needed.

Participants in these partnerships learn a lot more than how to serve. They learn collaboration, compromise, humility, and strength. They learn to organize themselves, to work with and against power, and to take some refuge with each other. In short, they are a model for getting along in complex societies. This is the radical possibility of service-learning. But it is one that can only be reached if service is simply a means, not an end in itself.

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