An earlier version of this article was published in educational Horizons 77,4 Summer 1999

©1999 Edward G. Rozycki

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. -- Shakespeare

See also, ... True Service Learning

edited 4/2/12


A principal's experience

During the years 1985 through 1986 I spent fourteen months of my life -- an eternity and a half -- as the headmaster/principal of a private academic preparatory school with students from grades seven through twelve. All students from tenth grade up attended classes only four days a week, Monday through Thursday, starting at 8 AM through until 3:30 PM to make up the class time. On Fridays they went out for "service learning" to assist in hospitals, schools, department stores, factories, private businesses, whatever, and thereby -- it was theorized -- experience an aspect of real world relevance in what might have been otherwise just a humdrum academic grind.

The enthusiasm for this undertaking expressed by the different constituencies of the school community, board, students, parents, teachers, sponsors, varied inversely as their actual involvement in it. It was one thing at the beginning of the school year while the weather was still nice, travel was still easy and the upperclassmen had not gotten behind in pages to be read or papers to be written, to "take a Friday" off for exposure to something yet novel and out of the ordinary.

By Thanksgiving, it was a different story. February was even worse. Parents behind in their tuition payments groused that they were only getting 4/5th's of their money's worth anyway in both academics and supervision. Sponsors, who were not at all prepared for -- and often mortified by -- adolescent discipline problems, noticed increased absence, tardiness and lackadaisicality in their charges. Academic teachers resented the duties they had to perform on Fridays with underclassmen in lieu of teaching regular classes. Students out on the job often found it lonely in comparison to the bustle of the school building, producing, thereby, the odd behavior of "cutting to go back to school." Administratively, the headaches "service learning" produced were substantial and immanent; little offset by the fuzzy and mostly imaginary by-and-byes that such an experiment was supposed to reward everyone with. But since "Academic Excellence" and "Real World Experience" were slogans of the Academy, we slogged on, pretending -- as do practitioners in every sphere of education -- that hyperbole could make up for incompatible realities.

Cooperation is to Obedience as "Service Learning" is to...?

It is perhaps a measure of the great distance between expectations of the student teacher and reality of the veteran practitioner that over the years educators have concocted a kind of Newspeak, call it Eduspeak. Because teaching, especially in basic education, is as much a job of socialization and politics as it is promoting intellectual development, public school teachers learn early on to recast direct, descriptive language into wishy-washy, evasive and more flattering forms -- until, at least, they get tenure or have given up on trying for an administrative promotion.

But you and I know -- and we knew it already when we were kids --: Eduspeak is a language of hypocrisy -- excuse me -- tact. That is, of indecision, of hesitation, of reluctance, of prissiness and of indirection. Of all those things that undermine the formation of courage, steadfastness, forthrightness and commitment. Ichabod Crane is not, unhappily, an overly drawn caricature of the educator. This is not because educators, in particular, lack character; but, rather, because in our society educators, in particular, are denied the power to make educationally relevant decisions and must concede decision-making to the uninformed, the uninspired, and the unjust.

Rather than tell kids we expect them to obey when given directions, we invoke their "cooperation" and punish them for disobedience. This is the downside of our pluralistic society: to be "cooperation" requires goals and values be shared; obedience does not. But values are not shared. And we celebrate the multiplicity of goals. In addition, talk of obedience provokes rebellion, generates heat, and the pot is already -- we fear -- near to boiling over.

And what is "service learning?" If you are compelled, is that service? And what is it you learn in the process? To give of your heart and soul? Or, more likely, to resist, to sabotage, to give, at best, perfunctory performance. I am reminded of an interview described by psychiatrist Robert Lindner in his book, The Fifty Minute Hour, in which a patient is asked what he has learned through all his therapy with drugs and with severe electroshock treatments. What has he learned? "To keep my mouth shut!"

Morally acceptable options.

Before we institute service learning in our public schools, let us reinstitute the military draft, or the Civilian Conservation Corps, or make servitude in such organizations as the Peace Corps or VISTA, or the like, compulsory. Let us permit young adults, past their basic school incarceration period, to choose among services they can see lead to direct benefits such as college loans, career opportunities, and marketable experience.

Let us not delude ourselves that "service learning," compelled upon students in basic education is, in general, going to be anything more than another diversion in an educational system that has long taken on too much, with too few resources, to accomplish even its basic goals.

A rule for evaluating an educational proposal one might adopt is this: would a free adult choose to participate in such a program, given the involvement it requires and the payoffs it can reasonably promise? If not, forget it. It is immoral to force children into such a thing.

"But it's for their own good!" we hear the cry arise from that kind of moralist who finds suffering most expiatory when kept at a distance. If kids must provide services, let them be paid for it, and at a competitive rate: that is what an adult would want. After all, it isn't the case, is it, that "service learning" is most vaunted where worker unionization is most imminent? Surely, such low motives couldn't be at the base of all this!

Perhaps it is time for educators to stand up to their practically inexperienced and morally befogged directors and say no to anything which undermines the basic mission of the school. This might also require our foregoing Eduspeak and talking directly to our students. I suspect such a situation might be far more effective than so-called "service learning" in teaching character.