This week in North Philly Notes, Randy Stoecker, author of Liberating Service Learning and the Rest of Higher Education Civic Engagement provides his observations about the self-defeating nature of higher education civic engagement.
For thirty years I’ve been trying to be a “useful” academic—not just to my students but to my world. And so, for that entire time I have been trying to practice forms of higher education civic engagement such as community-based research and service learning. But it has never felt as satisfying as it should. The models that dominate the practice seem too weighted for the benefit of higher education stakeholders and not nearly focused enough on the real world. Most important, the models have not seemed thoughtful—carefully designed and theorized.
In my quest for a more meaningful philosophy and practice of higher education civic engagement I recently attended an international conference devoted to the topic. My hope was that, by getting out of the country I might find deeper thinking, stronger strategies, and more critical reflection on what it means to build knowledge power with real people struggling against oppression, exploitation, and exclusion in real places. Because, in the U.S., such engagement is still an outlier to the self-satisfied higher education establishment where the idea of relevance is mostly irrelevant. Insulated from the issues of the day that press down upon the people, and comfortable in their sense of job security, most academics could care less about engaging with the “community.” So, for those of us who do, it’s an unrelenting uphill struggle for recognition and respect inside the walls of the ivory tower. But even amongst those civic engagement promoters on the margin, and perhaps because they so much feel like they are on the margin, there is far too much self-congratulatory rhetoric covering up the lack of impact from higher education civic engagement, and especially from service learning. Far from being some kind of revolutionary force in either the academy or the “community” that promoters portray, our practices in the name of higher education civic engagement mostly expose us as willing partners in a political economic system designed to transfer wealth from the many to the few. Our engagement work is far more likely to be charity work than change work. We help people get low-pay and low-dignity jobs rather than changing the structure of the economy. We integrate children who come from marginalized cultures into the existing school system rather than changing the school system to be inclusive of diverse cultures. We clean up the trash along the stream rather than shutting down the upstream corporate polluter.
Beginning with my experience in 2006 working with students and community organizations researching the real story of service learning in the community, that produced the book The Unheard Voices, I became increasingly convinced that I needed to articulate not just what bothered me about higher education civic engagement, but also what would be better. Eventually the book Liberating Service Learning took form. The book is my attempt to show both how higher education civic engagement has become unwittingly complicit in maintaining oppression, exploitation, and exclusion; and how we can change our practice by deepening our thinking about the practice and its social context. I wrote the book to try and get from my gut-level discomfort with current practice to a thoughtful critique, and then to an alternative set of theoretical and philosophical principles on which I could build a more progressive practice. And, as a personal project, it certainly succeeded. Writing the book clarified a lot for me, and gave me a more satisfying vision and a more consistent strategy. The first simple insight I got is that mainstream, or what I call “institutionalized service learning,” practice has its priorities reversed. Institutionalized service learning starts by focusing on student learning, then on “service,” then on “community” and only then on any kind of social change. In completely reversing that prioritization to start with change, then community, then “service” and finally learning I found a new foundation for what I was trying to do. But I also found that those conceptual containers were filled with bad thinking, so I also needed new theoretical foundations for all four concepts. The result is a model that understands change as embedded in structural conflict, community as a goal rather than a starting point, service as bottom-up power organizing rather than top-down charity, and learning as constituency-focused rather than student-focused.
The book has also helped me see what we are up against. Higher education administration, I am learning, is working hard to enforce the system of institutionalized service learning that maintains the status quo. Before the international conference I was at a job interview—one of those administrative bloat positions that had three modifiers, like “assistant associate blah blah blah to the blah blah blah.” But because it also had “engagement” in the title I thought there might be some potential. No luck. The most important interview questions seemed to be how I would handle laying people off from budget cuts and how I would promote higher education engagement with one of the powerful business lobbies that, by the way, engaged in a business I find morally distasteful. There was clearly no interest in thinking deeply about the philosophical and theoretical issues of civic engagement that we should be discussing in institutions supposedly devoted to the advancement of knowledge.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Higher education administration is already so corporatized that it is easy to understand the unreflectiveness of those who occupy its boxes on the org chart. But as I returned from the latest conference I also saw more clearly, from a global perspective, just how far away we all are from a practice that can create a better world where the many, rather than the few, control wealth and power. For there the talk was about promoting yet another new label for the same old and unreflective practice, treating profit-taking businesses and oppressive institutions as if they were deserving “communities” in and of themselves, and focusing on the technicalities of “partnership” rather than the critical realities of oppression, exploitation, and exclusion.
There are a few closeted higher education civic engagement practitioners out there, however, who’ve already read through Liberating Service Learning. They have disclosed to me their own loneliness in attempting a practice that goes against the grain of the current systems both inside and outside of the academy, along with their pain and occasional victories. And it has been heartwarming and reassuring to hear their voices. May Liberating Service Learning help us raise our own voices.
Filed under: american studies, cultural studies, Education, ethics, Mass Media and Communications, philosophy, sociology | Tagged: academia, civic engagement, community, community-based research, Education, higher education, service learning | Leave a comment »