Saturday, November 8, 2008

Service learning or service to the State?

Waldo suggested in commenting on my recent post about Barack Obama's plan to require Middle and High School students to volunteer that I was "tacking close to the freepers" in my comparison of the plan to corvee labor, serfdom, and slavery.

Maybe so.

But, then again, the idea of compulsory service learning rubs me so far in the wrong direction that it is difficult for me to restrain the blood shooting out through my retinas.

You see, my family has a long tradition of volunteer work. Children are raised with the expectation that they will volunteer their time, their effort, and--when appropriate--their money for good causes. I could go into exhaustive detail, but that would (a) sound suspiciously like bragging; and (b) defeat the other principle we teach our children, that such work should be done with humility and not fanfare.

Other families, other individuals, don't necessarily feel that obligation, and that's OK. The essential component of volunteering is ... well, the voluntary aspect of it. You volunteer because you personally feel like you're a part of a tradition of service, because you personally feel an obligation, because you personally want to make a contribution...

When the State can require you to give back, however, this inverts the paradigm. Somebody besides you decides what is sufficient, and what kinds of service count.

You are not giving from your heart--you're meeting a requirement.

The ability to impose that requirement opens a particularly dangerous door. There is a fundamental difference between passing over to the State money that you have earned in the form of taxes, and the State having the direct ability to require non-compensated labor.

There are all sorts of high-sounding rhetoric to be employed here in support of the idea that not to want to "give back" is somehow, ah, selfish.

This is classic reframing in the best traditions of George Lakoff, when everything permitted becomes compulsory....

And if that puts me in company with the Freepers, so be it.


Anonymous said...

Is there not a difference between compulsory and incentivized?

Steven H. Newton said...

Two answers:

1) This is not incentive; this is compulsory: Obama will call on citizens of all ages to serve America, by developing a plan to require 50 hours of community service in middle school and high school and 100 hours of community service in college every year.

2) This is fundamentally different, even if one removes the compulsory component, from the kinds of service and sacrifice asked of Americans during, say, the Second World War. He is not instituting this service to the State as a means to an end (defeating totalitarianism), but as an end in itself.

Tell me something, Anon--what do you figure the average number of volunteer hours put in across the country right now equal, if amortized against the entire population? I'd guess they far exceed anything Obama is speaking of. The inherent dishonestly of his approach is to suggest that Americans are not being unselfish enough, not volunteering enough right now, so the State has to step in and lead them to proper conduct.

Show me any factual data that suggests Americans don't volunteer their time already, and we'll talk.

Sean Grove (CoThink) said...

I can definitely see where you're coming from. However, in the case of college students, I think we've introduced a false dichotomy. Learning and effort spent on random, meaningless, and arbitrarily constructed projects doesn't do anything for anyone (other than a bit of learning for the student going through the motions). Introducing community projects, whereby the effort a student spends learning how to do something actually contributes back to the community in need, seems like a simple win-win situation.

A bit more emphasis on the professors to work legitimate community needs and projects into their curriculum could make the difference perhaps, rather than requiring individual students to commit to a certain number of hours.

Steven H. Newton said...

As one of those professors, I think you've fallen for a piece of false advertising. There are, in general, three types of college courses: (a) required general education courses that impart basic skills; (b) courses related to the student's major; and (c) electives.

In General Education courses there is rarely sufficient time to do anything but the course curriculum, nor is there a service learning component to Biology or English Composition--not one that actually supports the objective of the course.

In Major courses there is generally specific material to be learned as well. Service learning will not substitute for, nor supplement Anatomy & Physiology for Pre-Med majors; or General Accounting for Finance majors. Good schools already use real-world classroom experiences where applicable (e.g., Teaching Reading in the Classroom or Community Health). Moreover, almost all colleges now offer internships for 3-9 hours credit that accomplish what you're talking about.

There are plenty of Elective courses that already offer these opportunities as well, but if they become required, they're not ... Elective ... any more, are they? They are part of the General Education program. Part of going to college is the ability to expand your mind by trying different intellectual experiences of your own choice.

Finally, you overlook the fact that student clubs, fraternities & sororities, and service organizations already perform this function and mobilize a sizable percentage of the student body in real voluntary service.

What you are describing sounds good until you realize much of it already exists, and that most college curricula no longer have that much "fat" left in them.

Please also remember that most college students today have to work full-time or part-time jobs to survive, so the image of herding hung-over frat boys out to do good works is awfully misleading.

Hube said...

Hey Steve -- as we're both in education, what about all the volunteering WE do after our normal contracted hours ... y'know, helping students with tutoring and make-up work/tests? ;-)

Anonymous said...

The notion that I should work community service into my lectures on statistical mechanics -- a course which consists of me covering the front blackboards with one equation at a time, equations that only fit if I write carefully, is in my opinion in error. Actually, it is like the proposal that I should work computer usage and group projects into my course, namely it is seriously lacking.

Having said that, Steve, the freepers appeared to me to be far too mild in criticism of Obama's fascist -- in the exact historical sense, namely that it is something out of the thinking of Benito Mussolini -- proposal. However, the fact that the proposal vanished suggests to me that it may have been the words of a staffer who didn't quite follow that what was being proposed was reviving the Bush thousand points of light proposal. (Actually, at $4000 for 100 hours of volunteer work for college students, $40 an hour, it appears closer to the 'thousand pints of lite' model).

Sean Grove (CoThink) said...


I think you're certainly more aware of the situation than I am - I've only had a bit of educational experience, and it was for a small ESL class at a small college.

I do work for a company that finds projects and works to integrate them into normal courses, or service learning courses depending on their scope. So feel free to take what I say with a grain of salt, at the very least.

I definitely agree that there are many classes where either there is no time, or not enough skill at the undergraduate level to do classes that have impact outside of the classroom. However, there are perhaps just as many where it can be done creatively. Biology....not so much, at least none that directly support the academic goals of the class.

But we've helped put together a fashion competition, whereby we've tapped into the many different skills of students. We have MBA's that budget and market the event, graphics designers that come up with the promotional material, interior design students that put together the venues. Also, we ask cultural anthropologists (with an emphasis on African countries) who scout out the requirements and constraints of a particular region, and then give those requirements to the fashion design students, who compete to make cheap, durable clothes for Africans (generally children). At the end, all of the clothes are shipped to different creches or organizations.

At each step, the students do it in order to fulfill a requirement in the class - the final product they produce acts as their midterm, their final, or whatever the professors has chosen to integrate it as.

Another project off the top of my head - we work with some Chinese language and political science students to put together lectures and Q&A sessions for local Chinese immigrants unaware of how the local government system works. The students of the (upper-level undergradute) political science class rotate their presentations so that they end up doing one or two a semester, or one a quarter, but the Chinese immigrant population gets a lecture and their questions answered roughly once a week. The Chinese language students meet with the presenting student ahead of time, work out all of the material that they might need to explain, and then provide support for the immigrants that have a difficult time understanding.

Admittedly, this doesn't work for every class, and I'm assuming that projects such as these would naturally count towards the tax credit Obama is suggesting. But integrating it into the curriculum isn't necessarily a terrible idea, as long as it doesn't weigh too heavily on the professors. As Hube said, you guys are already pulling overtime and donating your time - a personal frustration for me that it's not compensated appropriately.

It's definitely an interesting conversation though, and I appreciate you taking the time to have it.