Friday, February 18, 2005

Service Learning Update

It's been awhile since I wrote about the service learning issue at UW-Eau Claire. Briefly, UW-EC is one of a handful of public universities that requires students to complete a certain number of hours of volunteer community service as part of their graduation requirements. Academia thinks this is wonderful. I think it's a terrible idea for reasons I outlined here. But once these additional "feel good" requirements are put in place, they're rarely removed.

Last fall the service learning program came under fire because students who wished to fulfill this requirement by volunteering in religious settings were finding their proposals rejected. The service learning office had decided that teaching Sunday School (for example) would not count, while walking dogs (for another example) would.

Never mind that teaching Sunday School requires preparing lesson plans and trying to keep a dozen kids on task while walking dogs involves . . . well, walking, . . . dog-walking was considered to have value in the eyes of the university, while teaching was not.

I'm simplifying it, of course. The issue is much more complex than that, as all church-and-state separation issues are. Advocates of the religious service learning ban argue that for the school to give credit for a religious project is a violation of the establishment clause. Opponents say that because the projects are entirely student-directed and designed, what is at issue is a matter of personal freedom.

I blogged a lot about this last fall. Here, here, here, and here are some starting points. See also, this website here.

The reason the issue arose last fall is because it was discovered that language forbidding religious service learning was added to the guidelines without being approved by the proper academic committees. So earlier this year, a Chancellor-appointed committee went to work on the service learning program, rethinking its mission. Unfortunately they didn't decide to scrap it.

All this to say that they still haven't decided what to do about religious service learning projects. But that issue is to be taken up today.

I'm told that a number of first-amendment advocacy groups are closely watching what UW-EC decides. While the issue did get some national attention last fall, depending on how they decide, this issue may get a lot more national attention than the university would like.

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