Sunday, December 5, 2010

Should Service Learning Be Mandatory For College Students?

Another Essay for my English class.  This time, in response to the question:
Should service learning be a requirement for college graduation?

Service learning is the name for forcing college students to do volunteer work as part of their college careers. The hope is that this volunteer work will give students a better sense of civic duty, and thus, be a worthy addition to college curriculums. However, this idea relies on the faulty premise that if one is forced to volunteer that one will derive the same benefits as someone who does it out of their own desire to help. Mandatory service learning will not have the desired effect, and should not be forced upon students.

It is perhaps intuitive to think that by making students help others there will be a net positive; there could be no downside to volunteering time and effort to help the community. However, a more detailed inspection reveals there are many negatives, and any positive effects are just wishful thinking.

To begin with, service learning wouldn’t benefit the students’ education. Indeed, many students would be unable to volunteer in their field. This negates any argument that service learning would help the students’ education. While there may be specific cases where a student with a practical major could benefit from volunteering their efforts, this would simply be a positive indirect effect. Not only that, but in many cases such students are already effectively volunteering their time in the form of unpaid internships. If schools wish students to volunteer in such a manner they should be working with charities to establish more voluntary internships. However, as soon as students are forced to volunteer for the sake of volunteering, it no is longer about helping the student.

One has to ask: why it is exclusively schools that would take up this forced volunteer work? If it was really a needed benefit to society, then companies could also be forced to volunteer for the community. Indeed, in many cases a company would be better equipped to help in whatever way was needed. However, to a company their time is money. If a company is forced to give its time and resources to volunteer, it might as well give money instead. That money, in the form of taxes, is already paid by both companies and individuals to the government. That money, in turn, should be used to help communities when needed. If communities need extra help, the answer is increasing taxes to provide that extra help. Forcing college students to provide that help directly ignores the efficiencies gained from specialization. A college student, who isn’t even studying whatever field is needed, would be able to help more by working in their actual field for money, and then giving that money to a specialist, via the government, to provide the direct help. The only problem with that arrangement is that it doesn’t provide the positive feelings that directly helping would. However, gaining a positive sense of accomplishment at the expense of providing less efficient help is a purely selfish motivation.

In the case of labor being needed that almost anyone could do, there is an even greater gain in having the public at large finance the work instead of doing it directly. Instead of having a college student learn about basic construction, which he will likely never use again in his career, wouldn’t it make more sense to pay someone local to the community to do the work instead? That way, not only is the work done, but someone learns a trade which may provide them with a future source of income. In this way, a community can be helped to help itself. This is always preferable to relying on the altruism of others. Not only will it give the community a greater sense of pride, it will also make them less at the mercy of a fickle public. When the fad of service learning passes, and the aid stops, the community will have gained valuable skills which they will be able to continue to use to their own benefit.

Again, the only argument for directly doing the work is the positive feelings it would invoke in those doing the work. Proponents of service learning call these positive feelings a sense of civic duty. They argue that the feelings do have a worth in and of themselves. However, all the sense of civic duty in the world won’t help someone who doesn’t understand the very complex problems of the world. As John Egger eloquently points out in "Service 'Learning' Reduces Learning":
a student’s hours in a soup kitchen is simply charitable contribution and emotional experience. But her feelings provide no clue to the amelioration of poverty. Would a higher minimum wage help ... or hurt? How about tax laws that permit the expensing of capital investments? Or reform of business licensing regulations? In the hours the real student is not tied up in the soup kitchen, she can analyze these policy changes. That’s what education is for. (1)
This is a very important point, for a student’s time is not limitless. Indeed, any time spent doing service learning is time in which they aren’t learning how to actually fix the problems they see. No solutions to the world’s problems will be found if people are unable to agree on the causes of those problems, and as John Egger points out “A liberal education offers subjects including art, history and chemistry to promote the individual’s understanding of human nature and therefore his ability to cooperate with others in society” (1). Only through a very thorough education will the true causes of very complex problems become clear. By compelling students to divert time and energy away from studies, colleges would be impairing these students’ ability to actually bring about a positive change. That would result in a large detriment to all, much greater than any short-term gain given directly by the students.

In "Local Students Serve As They Learn" Robert Caret argues that “Students discover how political, economical, and social influences affect people and programs in real communities” (1). Bringle and Hatcher echo these sentiments in "Implementing Service Learning in Higher Education": “Emphasizing a value of community involvement and voluntary community service can also create a culture of service on campus” (1). However, both of these papers refer to students who voluntarily worked to help their communities. This ignores what will happen when someone is forced to volunteer against their will. When volunteering ceases to be voluntary, it loses even the sense of civic duty that was its only positive factor. Instead of feeling good about helping the community, students who are forced to do work will associate negative thoughts with volunteering in general. This will end up having a net negative effect as far as future volunteering is concerned.

While service learning may seem beneficial upon first glance, a more thorough inspection reveals the truth that there is very little in the way of real benefits accruing to either the student or the community. In the cases where a student is able to provide a specific service in his or her field an internship with a charity would be the better tool to facilitate that. In the case of students who are providing general help outside their fields, government sponsored work done by the communities themselves would both be more efficient, and provide a greater total benefit to the community. The only justification for having the students do the work themselves is a sense of civic duty. Unfortunately, by forcing the students to do the work, any positive sense of civic duty will be offset by negative emotions from being forced. A better way to gain the desired sense of civic duty is through additional education that addresses the problems and their causes. In the end, the idea of mandatory service learning doesn’t make sense.

Works Cited:
Bringle, Robet G. and Julie A. Hatcher. “Implementing Service Learning in Higher Educations” (Excerpt). Journal of Higher Education 67.2 (1996): 221-223. Print.

Caret, Robert L. “Local Students Serve as They Learn.” The Examiner. 20 September 2007. Web. 9 Sept. 2008.

Egger, John B. “service 'Learning' Reduced Learning.” The Examiner, 2 October 2007. Web. 9 Sept. 2008.

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