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 InSo 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.
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.