earlier version of this article was published in educational Horizons
Vol 80, no. 4 (Spring 2002)
Romantics, Idealists and True Service
©2002 Edward G. Rozycki
true adj . faithful, real, trustworthy. When modifying
a following noun, the word true is emphasized by a speaker
to arrogate authority to the himself/herself by:
a. indicating his/her preferred alternative; and
b. insinuating strongly that no critical discussion of the his/her
choice is invited
The majority of educators I have worked with have been optimists; even more,
they have been – much in the traditional literary sense of the word –
Romantic n A person who, rather than seeing the glass
as half empty, insists on seeing it as half full; even when it is only a
This is probably the source, not only of their optimism, but of the
substantial nurturant generosity they possess. Educators tend to see
"potential" in students that even their parents miss. Passing a student
for effort is another manifestation of this attitude.
But there is a danger here, too, since extreme Romantics tend to the
delusion that wishes automatically generate
b. the obligation for others to provide them.
(This Romanticism is probably the root of the long
American tradition of imagining that all social evils can be dealt with
Many, many educators are also – in common parlance – Idealists.
Idealist n a person who is willing to forego the
appreciation of a job well done for the right to complain that it was not
The virtue of Idealists is their continual striving for betterment. However,
this quality not infrequently tends to pathology, as with the school boards
that adopt idiot slogans like, "Excellence in Everything" or the parents who
berate their children for the one B on a report card otherwise all A's.
There is a tendency among idealists to sacrifice the good in hand to the
pursuit of a rarely achieved perfection. They act as though there were no
such thing as diminishing returns, i.e. that further enhancement is always
worth the cost, especially if it is not their cost.
Idealism found in a person already Romantic makes for a dangerous mix: a
general attitude that because the Romantic Idealist wants it better, it can
be made better and, thus, someone is obliged to help make it better, costs
True Service Learning
So we find Idealism alive and well among proponents of Service Learning. But
let us begin with an unpretentious definition.
Service Learning: Service provided by
students that fulfills academic goals of, or, set for, the students2.
Many practitioners explain it this way. Let's do a little analysis here,
carefully considering the meanings of the words. Clearly, nothing would be
a service if it were superfluous, so some kind of need on the part of
those served is assumed: bringing me a second copy of the morning
newspaper to read is not doing me a service, if I have read the first.
It would not be a service if the action were unwanted, so acceptance on
the part of the recipient is presumed -- the robber who takes your money
at gunpoint is not providing you with a financial service.
A practical consideration is relevant here. Students –– especially K-12
pupils –– would not likely be transported to far locations to render their
service, so some local definition of community is presumed.
To cite an example: at a Bartram High School satellite in Philadelphia 9th
Graders with low reading skills regularly visit a nearby elementary school
where they read stories to 2nd Graders and mentor them in learning to read
and write. This not only motivates them to improve their own skills but
also provides important support to the 2nd graders. This example would
generally understood to be one of service learning.
"But," objects our Romantic Idealist, "is this TRUE service learning?"
Then, depending upon his or her philosophical predilections, or political
leanings, or intestinal pressure, or whatever, he or she introduces a list
of conditions that work to dismiss present programs as inferior or
True Service Learning (TSL): (as articulated by its proponent)
Community service done by students that serves an academic goal for
those students that also meets conditions X and Y that I (and my
confreres) consider important. (Do NOT question our judgment!)
And so we find a condition appended such as:
"the needs of the community dictate the service being provided"3.
Logically, this is superfluous, since as we saw above the very term,
service, presumes need and acceptance, and practical considerations define
Why must someone (who, particularly) in the community dictate,
rather than suggest, cajole or request the service?
Is this word "dictate" meant to indicate priority of the "dictator's" demand
over the needs of the students doing the service learning? What would the
students' parents think of that? And how might the State School Code
restrain the demands of the dictator?
However, despite our criticisms, there is a concern here. Behind all of this
talk about who "dictates to whom" is a recognition that Romantic Idealistic
educators are euphemism junkies! They set up programs and call them Service
Learning, when in fact, no service may be rendered. Let me illustrate: I was
hired as headmaster of a school which had a required service learning
component for students in grades ten through twelve. The service program was
badly organized. What actually was happening was that the school was
foisting off its students on local institutions and businesses without any
clear notion as to how these students were to be helping them, or what, in
turn the students were to be getting out of it. The lie was, of course, that
our students were providing a service. The second lie was that they were
learning entrepreneurship, organizational culture, etc. etc. in return. A
very few were. The very great majority were wasting their time.
The Romantic Idealistic proponent of True Service
Learning might also suggest
Is this "empowerment" compatible with the conditions analyzed above for
being a service, i.e. need, and acceptance? Is it compatible with meeting
academic goals? Are these questions ever considered?
"The goal of the service is to empower students and those being
"Empower". Now that is a term of stunning univocality and clarity!
"The goal ...is to empower students and those being served," as though
educators might, without the TSL proponent's gracious guidance, blunder into
debilitating both student and community! The power of educators –– compared
to that of other professions, e.g. law, politics, medicine, the military ––
is so potentially dangerous that academics and edugurus have to take time
from their busy schedules every so often to jawbone educators into awareness
of what dangerous people they might be.
But the empowerment issue is really a distractor. It works to allay concern
about a presumably undesirable outcome that has, in fact, long been a
reality: the wolf in sheep's clothing suggesting to other sheep that some
sheep might be wolves in sheep's clothing. Whatever you want to call what
educators do, they are not rendering their students a service, if school
attendance is compulsory. This is not to say that it is morally wrong. But
it is the special status of children that justifies our treating them in
ways that would be intolerable with adults. This flies in the face of a lot
of educational rhetoric about "serving the children" but most of this is
Service not freely rendered is servitude. K-12 participation in service
learning is compelled by law. On top of it, "service learning" is the notion
of some Romantic Idealists as to how to get children to be different from
what their parents, society and culture are shaping them to be:
self-absorbed, politically apathetic,
improvement-seeking-but-not-improvement-paying-for delusionaries, i.e.
another variety of Romantic/ Idealist.
Service learning is as likely to help revitalize civic commitment on the
part of our children as is health education about diet likely to reverse the
general trend in our country toward obesity. Not that it's a bad idea, but
too much is against it. I don't imagine that any educator in Winston-Salem,
North Carolina is put onto a career fast track by demonstrating success in
convincing students not to smoke. Nor do I imagine that any town that has a
Frito-Lay plant, or a MacDonald's providing substantial numbers of jobs to
its citizens looks with fond regard on educators who manage to get their
kids to resist junk food.
Just as we've seen Values Clarification, Critical Thinking and Sex Education
drawn and quartered wherever students have had the audacity to carry their
learning back into their communities and act on them, so we ought to expect
that Service Learning will undergo some eviscerating redefinition should it
begin to knock up against the Approved Myths –– the traditional Romantic
Idealisms -- of powerful interests in our society.
1. See, for example, Henry
Perkinson The Imperfect Panacea. American Faith in Education. (1995)
Fourth Edition,. New York: McGraw-Hill.
2. See the Widener University
dissertation of Donald R. Godwin (2002) “Functional Motivations:
recruiting college students to perform community service” for a broad
review of the literature on service learning.
3. See, for example, “What is
Service Learning” http://csf.colorado.edu/sl/what-is.html (Former link,
4. Four Things Faculty Want to
Know About! #2 How is service-learning different from community service,
internships, cooperative ed, etc. .
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