service-learning, the Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad

The phrase “service-learning” seems to date from 1966. Nowadays, it means organized opportunities in schools or other educational institutions that combine community service with academic instruction as part of a curriculum or program of study. Since the late 1960s, the concept has been institutionalized with federal and state legislation, formal policies in schools and colleges, advocacy groups, and a body of scholarship. In 2008, approximately 35% of American high schools offered service-learning.

It is a much older idea, though. Buddhism, for example, emphasizes that true wisdom comes from serving others. “The Buddha himself bathed and clothed sick bhiksus [monks], cleaned their rooms, attended their daily routines, comforted their bodies and minds, and threaded the needle for aged bhiksus to relieve the pain of their poor eyesight” (Yun, 2008). The Buddha’s enlightenment came from his compassion, which grew from his service.

About 500 years later, in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus uses the example of a woman who has washed his feet–an act of service–to teach his disciples about the forgiveness of sins (Luke 7:38).

The Arabic word sadaqah (which is etymologically and conceptually similar to tzedakah in Hebrew) refers to voluntary acts of charity or service that are both virtuous in themselves and signs of faith. In Islam, sadaqah can be educational. Abu Huraira, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad who died about 1200 years after the Buddha, reported that Muhammad said: “Verily what a believer continues to receive (in the form of reward) for his action and his virtues after his death is the knowledge which he acquired and then disseminated.”

Even secular service-learning is a venerable tradition. Three famous examples from before World War II are Hull-House, the Chicago settlement founded by Jane Addams, which closely connected education to service; the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, which educated generations of labor and civil rights leaders using service experiences; and the Civilian Conservation Corps, which provided a whole curriculum along with its public work opportunities.

These days, I frequently argue in public discussions that the essential rationale for service-learning is moral; its moral premises deserve critical reflection; and empirical research that links service-learning to various outcomes (such as higher test scores) is mostly beside the point. I understand the tactical advantages of showing that what we value as an intrinsic good–in this case, service plus reflection–also pays off in standard utilitarian ways. But we shouldn’t let our tactics obscure our fundamental commitments. Nor should we leave our moral commitments unchallenged, because there are critical responses to the ideal of “service.”

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  1. Pingback: service-learning tips for elementary school teachers « Peter Levine

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