Friday, March 27, 2009

Presentation at the '09 Gulf-South Summit

This afternoon, I gave a short presentation at the 2009 Gulf-South Summit, a conference on Service-Learning and Civic Engagement through Higher Education, in Baton Rouge. The title of my presentation was: "Service-Learning as a Vehicle for Transforming Academic Cultures and Course Instruction: Bringing Politics Back In"

I think the presentation was well-received on the whole, but it did generate some critical commentary. The basic thesis of my talk was that the mission of higher education has evolved away from creating engaged citizens concerned about placing knowledge in the service of the public good in favor of training civically-disengaged, though highly-skilled, private professionals. I lament this de-politicization of the academy and suggest that administrators, faculty, and students work together to recapture and revive that mission -- and that the growing importance of service-learning in the academy represents an opportunity to do just that. My presentation simply articulates some percolating thoughts and is not researched in any "scientific" way, so take it more as an anecdotal reflection coming out of my experience as a committed service-learning instructor who not only tries to teach students about civic engagement, but who has also tried to explain to faculty colleagues the value of service-learning as pedagogy. What follows below are my presentation notes. Please feel free to comment on them and to critique them. I'd appreciate whatever input you might have.

Service-Learning as a Vehicle for Transforming Academic Cultures and Course Instruction: Bringing Politics Back In

What brought me to this topic was a growing realization during my years of involvement with service-learning in higher education of two somewhat troubling truths:

1) Students are mostly ignorant of what I called "applied civics."
2) Faculty are hesitant to see their work as part of civic education and tend to shy away from embracing as part of their jobs the role of crafting engaged citizens out of their students.

As I began to ponder these realizations, I began to wonder why this was so and I started to think that perhaps the root of this reality was located in our current academic culture. And if this were so, then I reasoned that this was a culture that I thought needed to be transformed. Hence the title of my presentation. But this title begs the question: What is the academic culture that needs transformation? For me, the answer is manifold, but I settled on five of what I thought were the most salient characteristics of our current academic culture that seemed to stand out to me. They are the following:

1) Our current academic culture is one that divorces knowledge from public life.
2) As a corollary to this point, our current academic culture is a culture that privileges knowledge as serving the professional and private life.
3) Our current academic culture is also one that confines knowledge within specializations and disciplinary silos; and this tends to discourage the process of making knowledge relevant, digestible, and usable to non-specialists.
4) Our current acacemic culture is one that conflates and confuses politics with ideology/partisanship, and demands that educators sacrifice the former so as not to be tarred and feathered with seeming to promote the latter.
5) Our current academic culture is one that sees students first and foremost as consumers and education first and foremost as a consumption commodity.

What is lamentable about this is that what I see as our current academic culture is a relatively recent creation. Education in the United States wasn't always this way. In fact, up until the late 1960s and early 1970s, education and curricula – and particularly higher education and university/college curricula – were designed intentionally and specifically to craft and mold engaged citizens through the acquisition of knowledge AND its direct application to public life. This is not to say that the kind of citizen that was valued in the halls of the academy prior to this moment in history is one that reflects an "ideal" citizen, but simply that administrators, teachers, and students were more conscious of and attentive to the civic dimensions of education.

Let me provide a brief example of what I mean here. The most frequent question I get from undergraduate and graduate students today about their college education is not: “How will I be better able to serve my community and be a more informed and active citizen?” but rather “What kind of job can I get with my education once I finish with college?” And I hear equally as much from faculty that their purpose is not simply to impart knowledge and encourage critical thinking, but how can I or my department improve our job placement statistics for our graduates. I hardly ever hear my faculty colleagues say (except occasionally in some kind of abstract and detached way) that their purpose as educators is to create engaged citizens who will apply the knowledge they gain from their academic experiences to public life.

How did we get to this point? Well, at least in the United States, I think in many ways it came out of a unique confluence of environmental factors during the specific historical period of the late 1960s and early 1970s that included:

1) A weariness with the socio-cultural conflicts of the 1960s between a civically-minded (and perhaps radicalized) academy and the entrenched forces of a recalcitrant state and a somewhat scornful private sector;
2) General disillusionment with public life and the seeming futility of civic engagement that came with the collapse of public trust in, and respect for, political life and public institutions in the wake of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal; and
3) An ascendent technocratic revolution of social, political, and economic life that promoted the professionalization and depoliticization of public sector and private sector work.

In essence, we in the world of higher education (faculty, students, and administrators alike) retreated into the safety and comfort of either the cold, hard rationalism of "scientific" inquiry across the disciplinary spectrum or the disconnectedness and, in my view at least, surrealism of post-modernism –- in either case, an escape from the public realm and the means of distancing the academy from its mission to cultivate in its students the idea that their education should be directed towards public life and civic engagement, or simply that public life and civic engagement even mattered (in a word: apathy). We went from the conception of higher education as a means to serve the public good by creating social capital in a knowledgable and engaged citizenry to a place where the civic and community purposes of education took a back seat to the creation of competent, specialized, and apolitical individuals.

In practical terms, what became the standard operating procedure in classrooms was to assiduously avoid the tensions of politics (and I don't mean here partisanship or ideology) as part of the academic experience in the classroom. Engagement with and debate over hot topic issues was tolerated so long as it was “sanitized” and cleansed of even the hint of discussions of “right” or “wrong.” Given that my own academic training is shaped by this environment, even I, who have come to think of applied civics as an essential part of any course goal, still find myself continuing to tip-toe around the tension and messiness of the conflicts that come with awakening a sense of civic purpose to academic work among my students. I always feel the need to temper what some might refer to as intellectual conflict over polemical issues of everyday life by trying to tamp down passions, even well-informed and adequately-contained passions, in the search for “neutrality” and “balance” in debate and discussion. That's not to say that political and civic life don't come up in classrooms; but I find that when they do come up, the tendency is to tackle them in terms of process and theory. In other words, "how" political life and civic engagement work (process) and some suggestions as to "why" they work the way they do (theory); but usually not whether they work well (because that gets into the realm of "subjective" judgment), and certainly not what our individual roles might be in making them work well according to what we value and hold dear (because that makes it personal).

This is where we are now. But it is not where we have to stay. We can, and should, without compromising the “science” of knowledge creation and dissemination, try to reclaim for the academy as its primary purpose and mission, the training of students, and even the production of knowledge through our own research, with a much clearer eye towards advancing the public good and towards cultivating engaged citizens.

Service-learning as part of an academic curriculum, if done properly, represents an opportunity to achieve this transformation of the academic culture. Service-learning can be the perfect vehicle for this process. It is certainly a natural bridge that can connect the specialization of knowledge and the depoliticized and professionalized curriculum that guides our current academic environment to public life and civic engagement.

How can service-learning transform our academic culture and course instruction and bring politics, in the best sense of that term, back into the classrooms of the academy, without falling into the trap of advancing partisanship or ideology?

1. Many scholars have argued persuasively that service-learning can and should demand that faculty and administrators learn about and teach about applied civics as an integral part of the overall university or college curriculum and as an integral part of any course content. I agree with this argument. The simple effort of designing a service-learning course provides a golden opportunity for faculty not only to learn about and teach "applied civics" directly, but also to reconsider and reconfigure the content of their courses as it relates to applied civics.
2. I would also take a page from Harry Boyte's conceptualization of "everyday politics" to augment the applied civics foundations of an effective curriculum and argue that service learning courses should require that students and faculty think of their roles and lives as students and faculty as connected to this notion of “everyday politics” -- in other words, that the academy (and what goes on in the academy) is part and parcel of civic engagement and public life. It’s what we do every day, so why shouldn’t that experience factor into our approach towards public life. In other words, we don’t need to abandon our identities and roles as students and educators when we engage in community service and public life, nor do we leave the tension and messiness of civic engagement behind us when we enter the campus; but rather we make each relevant to the other. Civic engagement shapes learning and teaching, and learning and teaching shape civic engagement.
3. Service-learning courses, especially, should be spaces where cognitive dissonance and conflict regarding public life and community service can have the opportunity to find expression without being overly or unduly constrained or subverted by the apoliticization of knowledge creation, dissemination, and application. Service-learning courses are an opportunity for teachers and students alike to question the course content critically and politically (i.e. as it relates to the public good and civic life) in a way that reflects everyday life.
So there you have it. My presentation notes. Of course, I went off script a good bit during my presentation, but I stuck pretty much to this outline. Anyway ... just thought I'd share. If you feel so inclined to leave a comment or share your own toughts/reactions, I'd be grateful and appreciative.

19 comments:

Annalisa said...

I saw the link to this entry on your Facebook and thought I would take a look. I found it to be very interesting and also a topic that my dad mentions from time to time. I think that part of the problem is the competitiveness that is involved in today's academic world. Students have to have the best grades and be socially active in order make it to the next step in life, be it graduate school or a good job.

I see the kind of apathetic student that you described a lot in Latin American Studies, a field that I always thought would be full of political activists concerned about Latin American issues. The general apathy on Tulane's campus surprises me, and I don't know how it emerged or how to fix it.

I wish I had some great insight into how to solve this problem, but I genuinely enjoyed reading your presentation notes.

D-BB said...

Hey Huck, can u condense this down to 25 words or less? I've been reading a paragraph per day and I keep losing my place. I think I will be reading this for the next few months.

Eric said...

What about students and teachers who don't have a desire to be civically engaged, and just want to gain an education in order to advance in the world according to their own personal agenda?

Eric said...

And I didn't mean that to be dismissive of your comments here. I think you raise some good points, and the entire presentation could conceivably be fleshed out into an interesting class about applied civics. I just don't see why that class or those lessons should be mandatory learning for students or teachers who aren't interested in public service.

Huck said...

Eric - Thanks for the thoughtful comments/questions. I would answer by saying that I think your comments and questions basically come out of an understanding of education that I think is part of the problem that I am trying to address. In essence, it boils down to what education is and should be. Is its purpose simply the transmission of knowledge? Or is its purpose also crafting citizens? I would argue that it should be some combination of the two, with knowledge acquisition and creation placed in the service of the public good in some capacity. Do we learn simply for the sake of learning, or do we learn to become more productive, engaged members of a community and a polity?

If one defines, as I do, the purpose of education as creating engaged citizens, then my answer to your question would be: if you go to school prepare and expect to become an engaged citizen; and if you teach in school, prepare to teach about applied civics. If education were defined in such terms, then opting out of the applied civics purpose of education (for both students and teachers) would be like opting out of any other educational requirement. For example, students just can't enroll in my class and expect that they can opt out of becoming a critical thinker in favor of rote memorization. (Well, they can opt out, but then they'll fail the class. And no one would chastise me for it, because that's perceived as a legitimate criteria upon which to judge educational performance by.) It begs the question: if the purpose of education can be defined as training in critical thinking (and require demonstration of critical thinking to pass the course), why can't the purpose of education also be defined as training in applied civics and public service?

That's my whole point. We live in a culture where citizenship training and public service has been divorced from the academic/educational culture. But the fact is that there are signs that we still DO think of education as having a civic purpose. Why start the day at the elementary school with the Pledge of Allegiance? Why are civics classes mandatory in High School? Why does this purpose of education end at High School? And this has become so ingrained in our way of thinking about education as it relates to civic life that you yourself automatically think of the two as necessarily separate and disconnected things. Not only does that really go against the civic purpose of education as perceived from the days of Socrates to the middle of the 20th century, but it also strikes me as a tragedy.

I didn't say this in my comments, because it was about educational institutions and missions; but I also think the same argument would apply to private sector work. We have forgotten the public service nature of work. We have divorced our work from our citizenship. Harry Boyte argues in his book "Everyday Politics" that there was a time when state fairs were about the public value of private work: folks celebrated their "production" as a value to public life and to community (hence the celebratory communal aspect of the state "fair" that was not just another "market day"). But now state fairs are much more about consumption and escapism, and much less about the public value of productive work. If more folks in business saw their actual work (and not just the taxes they pay) as part of their civic duty as citizens, then perhaps we'd have a more virtuous and civically-minded citizenry. But that's another discussion for another day.

Getting back to education though, Eric, let me ask you a simple question: What is the ultimate purpose of education?

Eric said...

"What is the ultimate purpose of education?"

Primarily, to gain knowledge and learn to think critically, for the purpose of being able to indepentantly define, pursue, and hopefully accomplish one's goals in life. There are secondary reasons, but I think that is the most important.

"...if the purpose of education can be defined as training in critical thinking... why can't the purpose of education also be defined as training in applied civics and public service?"

I'll give it a shot: because a person can be said to be better educated in proportion to their ability to think critically, but we wouldn't (and shouldn't) consider a person to be better educated in proportion to the amount of political involvement and public service they engage in.
An uninformed, unlearned, illiterate idiot can dish out servings at a soup kitchen, but you need an education in order to perform a heart transplant. There is no good reason to prevent an idiot from working in the soup kitchen for lack of an education, or to force a medical student to work in a soup kitchen as a prerequisite for learning how to perform a heart transplant.

These are seperate areas of society, and need to have some boundaries between them... for reasons very similar to the reasons we keep boundaries between the church and the state. Sure, they can (and in some areas must) overlap, but one shouldn't become a prerequisite for the other.

Eric said...

And also, people absolutely do take pride in their work in relation to how it benefits the public. I'm proud of the fact that my business has kept tons of computer equipment out of landfills by recycling it back into production, but I'm much more proud of the fact that it has allowed me to live my life without being a burden on society, which is objectively a more impressive accomplishment. If my business accomplished the same environmental service, but didn't take care of my family, it would be a worthless business.

Likewise, my wife and I recently opened a bookstore which is the only bookstore in our community. We have hopes and plans for this bookstore to positively effect our community, and will take pride in that to the degree that it becomes a reality... but we certainly didn't do it out of a sense of 'civic duty'. We did it because we hope to exploit and profit from an untapped market. If we can't do that, there is no other reason for the bookstore to exist.

Huck said...

Eric - What you are basically arguing is that knowledge (of any kind) and its place in shaping civic culture are separate and distinct entities -- that the one is neither a prerequisite for nor dependent upon the other. Is the purpose of being able to perform a heart transplant (or opening a bookstore or recycling computer equipment) divorced from its impact on contributing to the public good? Why, ultimately, does the doctor-in-training seek an education to perform a heart transplant? I would guess because there is something more there than simply a "hope to exploit and profit from an untapped market."

I don't think I have ever said that education should not concern itself with acquiring critical thinking skills, or advanced knowledge about a specialized topic. I'm saying that there is simply no logical or good reason not to bring politics (in the sense of civics) back into this learning process. The good is not the enemy of the better, and requiring the inclusion of a civic dimension to education can only enhance the learning process.

I think, in part, your objection rises from a kind of hierarchy of value in education that places content knowledge acquisition and critical thinking skills higher than civically-engaged learning. And, furthermore, you seem to be suggesting that the pursuit of the higher purposes of education in your hierarchy can do without the lower purposes, such that the lower purposes can be excluded or optional to the learning process. I would argue that no matter how you order the purpose of education and rank them, if the pursuit of multiple purposes enhances the learning outcomes of all, then the better educational pedagogy is to involve as many parts of the learning process as possible.

The highly-educated doctor, lawyer, businessman, or professor can wreak havoc on the polity and within the community in which he or she lives. An education gives you certain tools to do good things with; but the tools themselves can be just as damaging to the polity or the community. Civic education cultivates a greater sense of the positive use of a specialized education in a particular subject area for the benefit of society as a whole. Why not bring this in moreso to the curriculum? In fact, if civic education, when combined with specialized skills knowledge, makes for better doctors in practice, why wouldn't a curriculum require it?

Bringing a civic purpose back into the academy doesn't mean that the academy is going to produce only illiterate soup kitchen servers, but a highly-educated professional who understands his work in the context of a society in which he lives that includes the need not only for soup kitchen servers, whether illiterate or not, but creative ideas to try to discover solutions to the problems that create the need for soup kitchens! And, likewise, if the illiterate soup kitchen worker finds himself in the classroom, he will hopefully learn from that classroom not only some kind of knowledge and critical thinking skills, but also that that this acquired knowledge and critical thinking skills he obtains has value to the civic dimensions of the soup kitchen reality with which he has had experience.

Service learning is a two part process. Service and learning. On the one hand, there is ample research that has shown that learning is enhanced by service. And there is also pretty solid evidence that learning through service builds greater social capital and enhances civic life. Our communities thrive better, crime rates decline, personal happiness indicators improve, when knowledge is purposefully applied to and encourages civic life.

Eric said...

"Is the purpose of being able to perform a heart transplant (or opening a bookstore or recycling computer equipment) divorced from its impact on contributing to the public good?"

If a heart surgeon did nothing but go to work every morning, save lives, and then come home in the evening and go to bed, at the end of their career they would have contributed more to the public good than the vast majority of citizens.

I'd argue that it is impossible to divorce the act of transplanting a heart from its impact on the public good. Somebody was kept alive who would have otherwise died, and the person who saved them received benefits (material or spiritual or both) for performing the service. What can you, as an educator, do to expand on the beautiful simplicity of this transaction? Very little, I suspect. I fear that you would actually reduce the way society benefits from heart surgeons, by removing potential surgeons from the workforce whose goal was to simply go to work, get paid, and come home at the end of the day.

And ultimately, that is my argumetn, and what I find so offensive (and yes, I find it highly offensive) about your position here: It is not any of your business what I chose to do with my education.

Does the heart surgeon who agrees to do a heart transplant demand that, in addition to the cost of the transplant, their patient agree to do 100 hours of community service? If not, why should you?

Eric said...

"I think, in part, your objection rises from a kind of hierarchy of value in education that places content knowledge acquisition and critical thinking skills higher than civically-engaged learning."

Yes, it does, absolutely. I think it is immeasurably more important for schools and universities to teach knowledge acquisition and critical thinking skills.

In fact, I think our vocational schools offer a much better educational pedagogy than our universities, and that it would be to our benefit as a nation if we could set up a vo-tech style system for doctors, lawyers, engineers, and teachers.

I think there is too much, not too little, superfluous study required in order to get a college degree. We are grinding out sausage instead of producing prime rib.

Huck said...

And ultimately, that is my argumetn, and what I find so offensive (and yes, I find it highly offensive) about your position here: It is not any of your business what I chose to do with my education.

Eric - I think you are completely missing what I am saying here. I have never said at all that I want to control what someone does with his or her education. (Though I do think that it is perfectly acceptable -- and morally and civically responsible and justifiable -- for someone to tell me that I can't do heart transplants or practice law or do your tax returns with my education.) It is my business simply to provide the education. What you do with it is up to you. But it is well within my rights as an instructor to say that to be educated in my class means to think of the knowledge one obtains in my class in terms of informing a civic consciousness or serving the public good.

My whole point is not that I would foist 100 hours of community service on a doctor (though courts mandate that "punishment" all the time for violations of the law), but rather to get the doctor to think of his work in terms of its impact on the public good and to inform his understanding of his role as part of our civic community. How do you think people come to an understanding of their professions as contributing to the public good and to the civic nature of their work? Through osmosis? I don't understand why you are so opposed to and offended by including a civic dimension in education and to encouraging anyone to think that knowledge and critical thinking are relevant to civic/political life and vice versa.

What I am suggesting is neither ideological nor partisan, but simply Aristotelian -- we are necessarily civic creatures and thus education and knowledge should help us to be better at that part of our inevitable place in this world and in the communities in which we live.

Philanthropy, at its root, is driven by this desire. Doctors don't have to work 100 hours in a soup kitchen to be able to use their knowledge and education to benefit the public good and to be engaged citizens in public life. They can sit on the boards of the Opera foundation, they can send donations to the local AIDS clinic, or they can volunteer their services to local high school football team -- all of which can constitute placing their knowledge and critical thinking in the service of civic life. They certainly don't have to do any of that; but I don't see the harm at all in educating future doctors to see the value and benefits to themselves and their communities in the potential civic dimensions of the education that trained them to be doctors.

It seems to me that you are under some delusion that I am advocating requiring some kind of draft into a civil service corps as a condition of earning a degree. That's not at all what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about training students to think of themselves as citizens, and of considering how their education informs and relates to their civic life. What in God's good creation is objectionable about that?

Huck said...

Does the heart surgeon who agrees to do a heart transplant demand that, in addition to the cost of the transplant, their patient agree to do 100 hours of community service? If not, why should you?

That's a bit of a silly question, Eric. Let me recast it somewhat: Is it o.k. for a heart surgeon to refuse to do a heart transplant if his patient refuses to give up chain smoking and excessive alcohol consumption? Or is it o.k. for a heart surgeon to require that a heart transplant patient follow a certain diet prior to surgery in order to agree to do the surgery? If the heart surgeon requires a specific diet for his services, why shouldn't I?

Again, Eric, it has to do with what is defined as the purpose of education. If the purpose of heart surgery were defined as including the training of engaged citizens, then it wouldn't be objectionable at all for the heart surgeon to demand this. If the purpose of education is defined as creating engaged citizens, then having some kind of way to engage civic life in the learning process is not out of line at all.

Eric said...

Huck, yes, I guess I do misunderstand what you mean by 'applied civics' and 'public service' as they apply to your definition of education. I did have it in my mind that you were talking about a type of civilian service corp, or at least a university equivilent of such an institution.

Specifically, what kind of service or civics requirements would you force an engineering major to participate in before you would consider them educated enough to be awarded an engineering degree?

I'll be honest, I do not trust academia to make good judgments about what society needs from its citizens, much less apply those judgments towards the lives of students in a meaningful way. I also believe our society already demands too much civic engagement from its citizens in the form of paying taxes (just because it is a passive form doens't mean it ceases to exist). Demanding more just seems like adding insult to injury. People have a right to be left alone to some degree, and they shouldn't be forceed to give up that right in order to obtain an education.

Huck said...

Specifically, what kind of service or civics requirements would you force an engineering major to participate in before you would consider them educated enough to be awarded an engineering degree?

Yes, we are talking somewhat past each other about very different things. In answer to the question above, I wouldn't necessarily require any public service or civics to get an engineering degree. I do support the idea of some public service requirement for a basic liberal arts college degree. But I wouldn't specify what type of service assignment this needed to be, and would allow maximum flexibility of students to pick and choose courses and public service assignments that would be best suited to their interests and goals. What I also support in any course is the inclusion of some treatment of the civic dimensions of that subject area -- i.e. engaging the relevance of the materials to life beyond the ivory tower and the library (certainly without excluding the ivory tower and the library). For instance, the knowledge of mathematics is valuable not just in terms of passing exams, but also in its application to secondary education, to the mechanics of space travel, etc. Some engagement with the public/civic dimensions of work. But as for forcing a kind of academic-led brown shirts civilian works corps -- heck, even I chafe at that notion. That is definitely not what I'm getting at.

I'll be honest, I do not trust academia to make good judgments about what society needs from its citizens, much less apply those judgments towards the lives of students in a meaningful way.

I never said that academia should be in the business of making any kind of "judgments" about what society needs from its citizens, but rather that academia should be in the business of getting its students to think of themselves as citizens who need to understand better how and why it is important for them to engage in the discussion about what the society in which they live needs. There is a kind of civic professionalism that, when coupled with the disengagement from civic life that characterizes academic culture these days, encourages individuals to turn civic life over to the "professionals." It's fine for folks to become civically apathetic, but then they shouldn't complain when society moves in directions that run counter to their beliefs, values, goals, desires, etc. What I would like to see are ALL Americans engaged in the world and communities in which they live so as to have a stake in shaping this world according to their own interests and desires, and not to simply let themselves be forced into the position of being passive recipients of civic/community life. Someone's got to plan and run the neighborhood recreation soccer little league. Someone's got to plan and run the state fair. Someone has to organize the local hospital's 10K run for research on leukemia. There is a need (and I think an obligation) for the academy (or simply as part of any educational mission) to include training in the skills and concepts underlying this aspect of civic life. How can that hurt? It wouldn't detract from the required knowledge one would need to be a successful engineer, and may, in fact, help to make that engineer even more successful.

I also believe our society already demands too much civic engagement from its citizens in the form of paying taxes (just because it is a passive form doens't mean it ceases to exist). Demanding more just seems like adding insult to injury. People have a right to be left alone to some degree, and they shouldn't be forceed to give up that right in order to obtain an education.

But we live in community, Eric. We can't escape this aspect of our lives. Well, we certainly can't expect to benefit from and be a part of society and then not contribute to it. Think about that last part of what your wrote above. Obtaining an education (or at least going to school) requires NOT being left alone. It requires engaging ideas with other folks from different perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences. Am I violating someone's right to be left alone if I require students to make a presentation? Am I violating someone's right to be left alone if I expect students to work with a corporation to develop a business marketing plan as part of their training in a marketing class? Am I violating an architecture student's right to be left alone if I require that the student speak with interested parties in the design of an office building or a home?

There is a difference between "demanding more" and "expecting something" in exchange for being a part of society and community. And certainly there's nothing more demanding about including civics in education than assigning a research paper.

Eric said...

Huck, thank you for taking the time to clarify your point. I was certainly assuming something more drastic than what you are talking about. I still disagree that service is a facet of education, or that engaging in service is somehow evidence of scholastic aptitude. I stand by my statement that a heart surgeon's work is, in and of itself, adequate service to his community. Same goes for a historian, an artist, or a linguist. The work they do is service, academic types just tend to discount it as such because they demand payment for it. I diagree with you that there is an obligaton for academia to teach students how to be part of civic life. Have you ever seen a city council seat go unfilled? Have you ever seen a state fair fail to happen because there was nobody there to plan it? Have you ever seen a schoolboard election that wasn't highly contested? We have adquate numbers of people vying for positions of public power. We could actually do with a lot less of this, IMHO. (God knows my daughter's softball league could do with fewer people trying to run it... excuse me for a moment while I rip out a handful of hair!)

However, to the extent that you are simply talking about students learning about practical application of course material outside the confines of the classroom... sure, that's a good idea. I just wouldn't have considered that to be 'civics' or 'service'. Sure, a Physical Therapy student can and should learn something from spending time in a clinical setting. But they don't learn anything relevant to their discipline by volunteering at the local homeless shelter, and there is no reason that action should be a credit towards their degree.

I would never support a 'service' requirement to graduating (I can see it having application as a means for repaying college debt, but a person who can pay their way through college shouldn't be required to "serve" in order to earn their degree). I do wonder though, if you would accept a tax bill as "service" rendered? Who has done more for their community, the guy who worked for free a few hours picking up trash along the roadside, or the guy who put in equal time stocking shelves at Wal-Mart for pay, and thus contributed to Social Security and Medicare via their FICA taxes? Who gets to say which one of those "services" is more important? I guarantee you most academic programs wouldn't accept FICA conributions as part of a service requirement. (Tulane has a service requirement doesn't it? Which one of these actions would qualify as service credit?)

Anyway, thanks again for taking the time to clarify your position. I still disagree with you, but I'm no longer offended!

Eric said...

Also Huck, your attitude seems to imply that you don't believe people tend to think about their occupations in relation to how they effect the public. I disagree. I don't think it is possible for a heart surgeon not to understand the huge role they play in people's lives. I don't think it is possible for an architect to drive past a building they designed without considering the good it has done for the people living in it. I don't think you'll find a civil engineer in all of history who hasn't looked at a bridge he helped construct and considered the number of people whose lives were made better by his work. Show me the school teacher who hasn't spent time thinking about how their students have shaped the world, and I'lls how you somebody who should never have been allowed to teach.

A lot of what we are talking about here doesn't require instruction. It is as natural as breathing.

Huck said...

Eric - The FICA payment wouldn't fulfill the service learning requirement at Tulane because it doesn't fit the definition of service learning. Neither, also, would serving soup in a soup kitchen. The requirement at Tulane is not that students need to just put in some volunteer hours in the community. Rather, the requirement is that the service must enhance the actual learning of the course. To give you an example: serving soup in a soup kitchen for my Latin American Studies course simply wouldn't be approved because the service itself doesn't enhance the learning of the subject matter of the course. However, preparing a lesson for delivery at an ESL course offered to migrant workers from Latin America would fulfill the service-learning requirement of the course because it is a service that offers an enrichment in terms of learning about the region and its peoples. By that measure, the simple fact of paying taxes doesn't constitute service learning for two reasons (1) it is not a voluntary action consciously chosen by students and (2) it doesn't enhance the learning objectives of a course.

Also, Eric, sure there are people who fill in the public service roles that communities need. But that doesn't mean individuals fulfill these roles well. Civic participation is not "as natural as breathing" -- it requires a lot of skill in dealing effectively with all kinds of constituencies. Yeah, everyone thinks they can coach the kid's soccer team or run an effective city recreation program, but we both know that some coaches and some administrators are much better trained at doing what they do in the specific context of the public space. Perhaps, if we engaged applied civics as an important element of education with as much critical energy and study as we do for engineering or auto mechanics in school, we might just get better public servants.

I think people tend to think about their professions in terms of how it benefits the individual recipients of their services (and that's just an indication to me that people CRAVE a civic purpose in life); but I think it is important to make a distinction here between the satisfaction that comes from a private interaction as opposed to the thinking of professions in terms of thier work's value to the public good. That's not to say that professions don't contribute to the public good; but that we do tend not to make these connections so clearly between our professional activities and the broader public life of our communities.

Finally, Eric, I've never said that service is evidence of scholastic aptitude. Never. I said that public service, if done correctly, can enhance learning. In fact, research tends to confirm this. As you said, just about anyone can serve soup to the hungry. But working in a soup kitchen, when combined with the classroom study of non-profit management, or with the study of the structural foundations for poverty and homelessness, or with the psychology of dependency, can actually go quite a long way to enriching knowledge. Furthermore, it represents an opportunity for that classroom knowledge to be applied in a setting that can improve the operation of the soup kitchen or encourage critical thinking about the value or utility of soup kitchens. And it certainly helps to develop the idea that the knowledge we acquire can apply to the public good in more than one particular way.

Huck said...

Eric - If you are so inclined, I would recommend that you read Harry Boyte's book Everyday Politics: Reconnecting Citizens and Public Life. Boyte has influenced my thinking on this subject and I think you might get a better sense of the fuller picture of what I am trying to get at by reading his text. His book is not really about the academy and its role in training citizens, though he does touch on this. Rather, his thesis is more the philosophy of citizenship as it relates to our current culture.

Eric said...

Huck, thanks for your clarifications. Again, I see some value in what you are saying here, I just don't see it as something that should be a requirement for graduation. If an individual professor wants to, within reason, add a service component to their course to enhance education, such as you describe above, I'd have little objection (although it seems more proper to me for it to be an extra credit opportunity as opposed to a course requirement). I see a lot of opportunities for abuse and political prosletyzing, which is worrisome. I think a lot this type of stuff will translate to a professor who wants to put on some sort of public forum, and sees his students as free labor to pass out flyers, take care of the sound system, stack chairs, and clean up afterwards. A lot of 'service' oriented tasks can have social value without having any significnt educational value, and those should be avoided.

At the end of the day, my objections to these ideas stem from a general uneasiness with the idea of educators seeing themselves as responsible for 'crafting citizens', especially at the collegiate level where the local community and 'regular' citizens have very little administrative input (at least as compared to public schools). I'm not altogether much more enthusiastic about putting college professors in charge of shaping "good citizens" than I'd be about putting them in charge of making "good Christians".

I do see a place in our universities for providing a civically focused education to students who are drawn towards that calling. As with religious beliefs, one's decisions about what type of relationship and interaction they wish to have with society-at-lartge is are largely personal ones. I think it is a good thing to have 'service oriented' channels available to students who wish to be more civically engaged, but for those who don't, I see no reason to tether their educational success to the amount of attention they are willing to give to their community. All other things being equal, the engineering student who is only getting an education for personal profit deserves a diploma just as much as the one whose main desire is to serve the public. Their engineering teachers don't have a duty to change either one's mind.