"The world is progressing a whole lot more quickly than it is evolving." For several years now, this statement has constituted my running commentary on the state of affairs in American society.
I remember well the first time that I articulated it. It was before a group of freshmen in a Virginia community college American literature survey course. The subject was Ray Bradbury's short story "August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains," and class time was running out. I offered this seemingly harmless profundity as a tongue-in-cheek means for bringing decisive closure to a class discussion on Bradbury's existential approach to the age-old literary themes of man versus machine and meaning versus mania.
In the flurry of the moment, a student's hand shot up quite unexpectedly as he exclaimed, "So you're against change?!" I replied a quick "No, no one's against change" and, like judge to jury, instructed the class to erase from their memory banks any thoughts of world progress and evolution. And so this class on Bradbury's short story ended.
Since then, I have given much thought to the pithy profundity I coined in that literature course and have summoned it often to characterize what I have come to view as a maddening clash between our collective humanness and society's dance with change. Indeed, if the statement offers any insight into the current state of affairs in American society, it is that cosmic things have become much more complex than they used to be. The world is getting simultaneously smaller and more global. Technology is clipping along at a bewildering pace. The knowledge-based economy is not just futuristic theory any more; it is reality. Information is power, and access to information at all organizational levels is critical to an organization's success. Job descriptions are not as clear cut as they used to be, and neither are course syllabi. The organizational hierarchy is giving way to an organizational web. Competition has an interdependency to it that it did not have in the past. And everybody is looking to partner and collaborate and form strategic alliances.
The paradigm is indeed shifting, and embedded within it is a certain imbalance, a disconnectedness to just about everything. "Things fall apart," noted Irish poet William Butler Yeats to another generation. "The center cannot hold." Disengagement, disinterest, and disenchantment have become all too common descriptors for American society. Using the metaphor of "bowling alone," Robert Putnam characterized the phenomenon as "America's declining social capital." The Eisenhower Leadership Group framed the problem as a "democracy at risk," with too many "expecting someone else to carry all the water." And so it goes. The world is progressing a whole lot more quickly than it is evolving.
In the midst of this cosmic dance with change comes a call for civic renewal and a new model of leadership. The call is clarion. President Clinton christened the call AmeriCorps. The Wingspread Group framed it within the context of active citizenship. The American Civic Forum declared it a New Citizenship which "reclaim[s] responsibility for and power over our nation's public affairs." The at-one-time-little-known-but-now-oft-quoted, old African proverb--"It takes a village to raise a child"--symbolizes the inclusiveness of the call. Partnership, linkage, and collaboration; volunteerism, community service, and servant-leadership have become its national lexicon. Books like Lapp and Du Bois' Quickening of America, Coles' Call of Service, and Etzioni's Spirit of Community have given it a scholarly credibility. And service-learning has become higher education's hopeful response to this call and its brave new paradigm for its learners and teachers.
The definitions for service-learning vary from higher education institution to institution, but all share the common bond of linking the academic curriculum to civic, social responsibility. Robert Coles perhaps best captures the essence of service-learning with his phrase "putting head and heart on the line." In other words, service-learning connects the classroom to what is happening in the community. It both recognizes and embraces the interdependence between education and democracy which Thomas Jefferson espoused throughout his writings. And it is reminiscent of the Greek notion of the educated individual as one of intellect and action, with Socratic reflection part and parcel of the educative process.
Service-learning demands that students and teachers alike rethink the whole education thing. It demands that we reconfigure the how and why and what of the teaching/learning process. It demands that we redefine leader, making her more inclusive for one, less hierarchical for another, and more personally committed for still another.
Let's face it: Service-learning is messy business. It gets us right down in the muck of our communities and challenges us to give a damn. It dares us to take a stand--whether the experience is in a shelter for abused children or an inner city elementary school, whether the "course" is existential philosophy or advanced calculus.
Service-learning takes us all out of the walls of democracy's colleges and puts us right in the middle of democracy herself. It makes us collaborate. It makes us think critically. It makes us reflective. It gives us real life experiences in the first person. It fosters an interconnectivity of purpose. And, with apologies to Robert Putnam, it prohibits our bowling alone.
Oh, to be sure, all is not sweetness and light for service-learning in the new millennium. There is still much selling for us to do--but more to each other than outside the academy. Questions abound. Debate is essential.
Of two things I am certain, however. First, service-learning is uniquely positioned conceptually to answer at least a part of the clarion call for civic renewal and a new model of leadership. Second, with their mission fixed so deliberately on community and service, community colleges are the ideal place for effecting model programs of service-learning. The two together constitute an important educational step in the cosmic dance with change I outlined earlier.
Published under the collaborative auspices of the Campus Compact National Center for Community Colleges and the Corporation on National Service, Disciplinary Pathways to Service-learning is the second monograph in a series on service-learning in the community college. It focuses on the experiences of community college faculty who have incorporated service-learning into the teaching-learning experience. The work chronicles the personal journeys of these teachers, providing intimate vignettes of the faculty and what attracted them to the pedagogy of service-learning. It also offers epiphanic glimpses into the vital connections between the service-learning experience and disciplinary core principles and values. The essays end with practical musings on the logistics of the instructional strategy.
The world is indeed progressing a whole lot more quickly than it is evolving. My presidential hunch is that service-learning--particularly, community college style--will prove powerful force in better integrating the progress of our individual and collective life's journeys with their evolution.
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|Table of Contents | References|
American Civic Forum (1994). Civic Declaration: A Call for
a New Citizenship. An
Occasional Paper of the Kettering Foundation. 9 December, p. 5.
Bradbury, Ray (1950). August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains.
In The Vintage
Bradbury, with an Introduction by Gilbert Highet. New York: Random House,
Coles, Robert (1993) The Call of Service: A Witness to Idealism.
Eisenhower Leadership Group (1996). Democracy at Risk: How
Schools Can Lead.
College Park, MD: The University of Maryland--Center for Political Leadership &
Etzioni, Amitai (1993). The Spirit of Community: Rights,
Responsibilities, and the
Communitarian Agenda. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc.
Honnet, Ellen Porter, and Susan J. Poulsen (1989). Principles
of Good Practice for
Combining Service and Learning. Wingspread Special Report. Racine, WI: The
Johnson Foundation, Inc., 1989.
Lapp, Frances Moore, and Paul Martin Du Bois (1994). The
Quickening of America:
Rebuilding Our Nation, Remaking Our Lives. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.
Putnam, Robert D. (1995). Bowling Alone: America's Declining
Social Capital. Journal
of Democracy, January, 6(1), 65-78.
Yeats, William Butler (1974). The Second Coming. 1920. In The
Collected Poems of
W.B. Yeats. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, Inc., p. 185.
Deborah M. DiCroce serves on the Executive Advisory Board for
the Campus Compact National Center for Community Colleges.
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