Community engagement has become a buzz word for colleges and universities trying to find ways out of the ivory tower and onto the street below. Departments everywhere face enormous pressure from administrations who want to know what makes an area of study relevant (which is code for: worth not killing off in the next round of budget cuts). Service Learning initiatives are cropping up in a range of programs as a way to prove that studying something like history is still important in the present day.

Many of these initiatives are a generation beyond just making students do a set number of general volunteer hours in exchange for course credit. The emphasis now is on student-led projects that are specific and useful to the community. Designing and implementing computer programs for non-profit organizations, ESL (English as a Second Language) tutoring for immigrants and organizing local music recital series are some of the kinds of class projects that seek to connect university studies with the real world.

Benefits of volunteer-based education

  • Students become more invested in their own education experience because they can see what impact their work actually has on the world around them.
  • Organizations can make use of a motivated volunteer base with a variety of skills, some of whom will stay on even after the class is done.
  • Communities feel better connected with the students in their midst, and feel like real needs are being met.

Questioning what is education

All of these benefits are fantastic. The trend is interesting for more than just its immediate and obvious benefits, though. Volunteer-based learning challenges us to think about what education is for in the first place. When questions arise as to what makes a college or university program relevant, programs, especially those in the arts and humanities, are increasingly judged on their use-value. It’s the old, “what do you do with a degree in philosophy” question. Philosophy departments have shrunk over the past few decades because administrators and politicians have a very specific idea of what constitutes “usefulness,” and philosophy isn’t it. If spending priorities are any indication, business, professional and science degrees are useful. They count as useful because students get jobs related to those fields when they come out of those programs. Jobs are waiting in those areas because they align with our culture’s priorities—building businesses, advancing technology, making money. Community service initiatives give us a different way to evaluate the concept of “use” itself.

It isn’t all about the money

The turn towards Service Learning gives us a chance to see some of the holes in capitalist-consumerist logic. If making money was in fact the most useful thing we could do with our time and energy, that would solve our social problems for us, and it doesn’t. There’s enough money in the world right now to end hunger and homelessness and yet they’re still there. Partially, this is because funds don’t go to the people who need them most. Mostly, this is because there are deeper problems in our cultural mindset that keep people from helping each other. Obviously, community organizations also need to be financed. But what these Service Learning projects suggest is that even more than money, communities need connection: connections to people who know how to do things; connections to people who are willing to work together for a common good; connections to people who remind us that all of us are important on our own, but that as a team, we find an even greater significance. If students can be made aware that what makes the world go round isn’t the money, but the energy and goodwill we put into it, that definitely seems like a lesson worth learning.

If you’re interested in learning more about local Service Learning projects, get in touch with the colleges and universities in your area and see what’s being done.

Read about another alternative education opportunity in START A SCHOOL: State-funded Free Schools in the UK>>

image: Zaw Lin Htoo (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA)