The Problem of Service Learning

I think exploring the meaning of the words we use in this work is important. Too often I hear cynical adults say that we’re all talking about the same thing, doing the same thing. That must be like the feeling I get when I’m walking through the mall looking at the stores that all sell the same products, just with different imaging around them.

However, I know that is not the case in hand. For example let’s look at service learning. Service learning is connecting community action with stated learning goals within an educational context. It is almost solely focused on engaging children and youth as participants, as opposed to adults and seniors.

The problem of service learning is that it actively teaches students and adults to rely on the economies of grading, social status and the education system to address “serious social problems.” It is that kind of “economic thought” that created many of the problems in the first place. As Will Rogers once said, “If stupidity got us into this mess, then why can’t it get us out?”

Let’s examine why.

Challenge # 1: Getting Good Grades
The first problem of service learning is that the inherent premise of service learning today teaches students that “serving” others is the only way they can earn credit towards good grades or graduate from a grade level.

What this equation does is effectively dampens or even completely takes away the desire that all young people have to help other people. From the time that they are really young all children have the capacity to do good, and often express interest in helping others. I’m not unaware of the news stories of kids “gone wild”; I believe the behaviors of children are resultant of the behaviors exhibited in the environs around them. Regardless of that, all young people have the desire to help others. Service learning does not always accentuate that enthusiasm; instead, it often squelches it. That is one problem of service learning.

Challenge #2: Neoliberal Grading
Problem two might be even more dubious: The extended outcome of the associations service learning teaches students as they learn they can earn credit for helping others. This engrains a kind of neoliberalism within students, as they learn to seek constant affirmation of the value of their “service” to others, reaffirming the equation of labor = cash. In societies with extremely gross inequities, like ours, this is especially problematic because it dismantles our inherent goodness, robbing us of any sense of hope for the common good that came from our own unbridled ability to cause and affect change throughout our community life.

By way of explanation, neoliberalism is the making private and profiteering off any activity that was, is, or could be conducted in the public domain for the common good of everyone throughout a community.

There are more challenges, but this is an introduction to the conversation.

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