The Problem With Service Learning (aka my exercise in pissing people off)

Service learning isn’t doing its job.

Well, service learning as it currently stands isn’t doing its job. In fact, it might be hurting the ideals of Jewish social justice.

The goal of service learning is beautiful. Let’s teach our students about the principle of repairing the world not only through classroom lessons, but also through experience and hands-on learning. Perfect. Great. But what happens in reality might just be counterproductive to what we’re trying to teach our youth.

Service learning is a long-standing Jewish educational tradition; we take our students, predominantly white upper middle class and privileged, and expose them to “less fortunate” people, places, and circumstances. Some outstanding educators are able to root service learning in social justice principles through bringing in their knowledge of text and tradition, but this is the exception and not the rule. In general, we thrust our values and needs upon other communities that could really use a partner in their work and not some white knights (pun intended) to ride in from the suburbs and save the day.

While I don’t mean to be overly harsh, I do mean to be pointedly critical. When I look at Jewish institutions that use service learning as a mode of social justice, they do it because they want to engage in meaningful experiences for their students. The question remains, however—why is this the way we’ve gone? How can we delve deeper into the big questions behind the service learning model, wrestle with, and engage them? Would this struggle, hand in hand with direct service and advocacy, not serve our community better? (Not to mention be much less patronizing and much more empowering for others).

What do I mean? Let me give you an example:

A literacy program might be designed to teach teens and tweens about the need for literacy tutors, and then have them work one on one with young children to improve their reading skills. This is an important piece of the puzzle, yes, but why not examine the educational inequities that lead to literacy challenges? I live in Boston, and the staggering differences between suburban schools and more urban ones often go ignored when we talk about “literacy”. Let’s go in depth with our teens about how our school systems disenfranchise students of color at disproportionate rates while money pours into other schools down the highway—not to make them feel guilty or shame them, but to let them come to their own conclusions about how and where to help bridge this gap in resource.

If we don’t contextualize service learning in the systems of injustice and oppression that allow for inequity, we aren’t giving our students the full picture. Throwing volunteer hours and money at the issues are helpful, but not the only answer. By presenting alternative modes of “service learning”, where instead of “serving” someone we are understand the complexity of the issue and then taking action, we can better prepare our students for justice work in the future.

While we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, I think we need to re-educate ourselves as teachers on what it is to work within systems that oppress and disenfranchise others. If we can reexamine our own role and our power with a critical eye, we will be able to better pass it on to our students. Then instead of service learning, maybe we will be doing “Social Justice Actions”. Social Justice Action allows for both time spent learning and in the field. It pays attention to root causes of educational inequity, hunger, ableism, consumption issues, etc and also encourages interaction with communities facing these issues in a meaningful way for both the visitors and local experts. Rooting this idea in Jewish values and lessons is easy—tikkun olam means repairing the world, not just putting band-aids on decades old issues.

If we allow ourselves to try something different, to wrestle with ideas that make us uncomfortable, and then pass those along to our students, I have no doubt that the next generation of Jewish learners can change the world. 

1 Comment

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One response to “The Problem With Service Learning (aka my exercise in pissing people off)

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful post. I think you’re right on the money, however, the issue is much broader than service learning. The entire nonprofit sector has become overly dedicated to direct service divorced from advocacy and fuller understanding of why we have the problem we do. As you mention, it is a systemic problem involving boards, funders, regulators, donors, etc. in trying to give volunteers bite-size, easy, conscience-smoothing things to do rather than talk about, much less advocate for, public policies that ensure that we don’t need food banks.

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