I'd say that you probably have it right when you say that these commemorations rarely bring us closer to understanding-- and I've been disappointed for a while with the ways in which MLK, Jr. Day is usually celebrated-- but I'd contest your suggestion that service takes us further from understanding. I think you need to provide some evidence for that claim, if you're going to make it.
I appreciate having my over-generalization made clear. So let me try to respond to LOZ's request.
First, let me agree that many people will have deep learning experiences, and get better understanding of major issues through service, even if that service isn't well connected to the issues that provoke the service (like racism and civil rights, or terrorism).
That said, there are several ways in which service projects might "take us further from understanding" (especially if they do not include reflection and reciprocal relationships between servers and recipients of service):
- service as a response to crisis might encourage people to think that one-time, mass actions are effective ways to approach complex issues, and/or that service to an individual is a sufficient response to issues that need political, economic, and religious response.
- service without reflection might reinforce server presuppositions about the issue. Many faculty who teach service-learning courses report a hardening of student views after service. Or in other words, service doesn't lead to changed or broadened views. When service turns to unresolved issues like race and terror, hardened views might take the group further from understanding the issue.
- service as a response to big problems/crises might weaken understanding of service also, by suggesting that service is an all-purpose tool, suitable for any problem. My own view is that this is a major problem for civil society. Most of the issues that face society demand systematic responses--responses that include one-to-one service, activism, policy change, behavioral change, and temperance. Service is a single part of the system, and one that needs fuller attention and greater respect. Service won't get it though if we treat it as a cure-all.