Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Service Learning Graduation Requirements

I mentioned before that I was planning to write about this issue eventually. Looks like now would be an appropriate time.

Today Ann Althouse links to this editorial regarding a change to the service learning requirement at the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire. (My alma mater.)

One of the requirements necessary to graduate with an undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire is the completion of a service learning requirement. Students must perform 30 hours of service to the community in order to develop, according to the guidelines to service learning released by the Eau Claire faculty senate, "a sense of civic/social responsibility even though they may also be focused on career preparation." Students have been allowed to perform any type of service they wanted to in the past provided it somehow related to the subject matter they were studying.

That is about to change. Today, the Eau Claire faculty senate will discuss a proposal that would make it so students could not perform any sort of religious practice in order to fulfill their service learning requirement.

The proposal would make it so that any volunteer work on behalf of a religious institution, such as missionary work or teaching at a religious school, would not be counted toward a student's service learning requirement. Secular work in a religious setting, such as work for religious charities like Habitat for Humanity, would still be allowed.

When I attended UW-EC back in the 80s, there was no "service learning" requirement. While I think community service is a good thing, I think requiring it is misguided. Granted, completing 30 hours of community service in the course of one's four- (or five or more) year college career should be no trouble at all. But I wonder if imparting "a sense of civic/social responsibility" should be considered a graduation requirement. It's not exactly quantifiable. ("Mr. Anderson . . . did you properly attain a sense of civic and social responsibility? Yes? Then you may receive your degree.")

And maybe I just get a little itchy about what I see as a (admittedly mild) form of social engineering. I recognize that a liberal arts education should support such things as community service, but "support" isn't the same as "require."

When I was at UW-EC, student organizations often participated in community service projects just because. There was no requirement. These organizations just did it because it was the right thing to do. Once a large group of us decided to go down to the Salvation Army and help with their holiday food drive just because we wanted to. No one was making us, and it wasn't a requirement.

One of my concerns has been that forced community service--even if one is unpaid--is not the same as volunteerism. Working as an unpaid volunteer out of one's own free will has value. The work itself becomes the reward. But you undercut the spirit of volunteerism and community service if you put a carrot on that stick.

I am also concerned that some community service will be seen as more equal than others. Until now, one could choose to serve in a religious setting. According to the article, "Secular work in a religious setting, such as work for religious charities like Habitat for Humanity, would still be allowed." Okay, . . . maybe Habitat for Humanity is not the best example, since the religious roots of the organization aren't all that evident. What about other institutions that provide a community service but have a Christian foundation? Certainly the Apple Pregnancy Care Center and the Hope Gospel Mission could use some volunteers. These institutions serve the community, but they are also Christian in focus. Will they be off-limits for students seeking to fulfill their requirement?

The implicit message is that serving the community through purely secular institutions is somehow better than serving the community through Christian or other religious institutions. So changing the defintions of this requirement, aside from being another needless attempt to divide the sacred from the secular, also seems to achieve an unintended (maybe) political goal as well as drive support away from community service organizations that may be in desperate need of volunteers.

The editorial says the decision doesn't go far enough because it allows students to continue working for other types of advocacy, including political advocacy. The editorial writer believes the service learning requirement should be limited to projects that serve the community--period.

I have what I think is the best solution: encourage community service by students through student organizations. The university could even require that for student organizations to receive funding they must participate in some community service, but UW-EC should end the service learning graduation requirement. College students are (supposedly) adults, and should be free to make decisions about community service themselves. Student advisors could even use the line, "Hey, it may not be required, but it'll look good on a resume." Requiring community service sends exactly the wrong message about what service is.

By the way, the editoral mentions that students would no longer be allowed to do "missionary work." I can't believe that would have been allowed anyway. While some may see evangelism as community service in the broad sense, I certainly wouldn't expect that to count.

I have a call in to a friend who worked closely with the service learning department, and I'll try to get some questions answered. Check back.

Updates here and here.


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