As many of us in Freshman Seminar begin planning our service learning projects for the spring, it’s important to remember that part of the purpose of service learning is to further the academic goals of the course. Keeping the two aspects of service learning in mind, meanigful community action and integration of the course’s curricular goals, helps to establish a strong purpose for the project and helps distinguish the project from community service. With this aim in mind, this might be a good time to take another look at what the academic goals of Freshman Seminar are:
- To critically examine the interdisciplinary theme of social justice in relation to a liberal education;
- To cultivate an understanding of self in relation to community;
- To invest in Xavier’s mission to promote a more just and humane society;
- To enhance your writing, reading, and speaking skills;
- To develop competency in technological applications used on campus.
The first three goals here speak the most to service learning, although the last two can certainly be furthered through a good project as well. But while goals 2 and 3 seem to lend themselves naturally to service learning, I think it’s the first goal that really offers the most opportunity. It’s this idea of a critical examination that will most distinguish this experience from service experiences the students may have had in high school and through church groups. In fact I see as a worthy aim of service learning to simply convince students that there is a difference. The difference, of course, lies in how we apporach the social issues we choose to address, how we present them, how we discuss them, what we learn about them. Add to this critical examination of social justice the aspect of its relation to a liberal education, and many more avenues are opened to explore: Are endeavors such as these built into how we conceive of the purpose of a liberal education? From where does this idea come? From when? From whom?
One measure of success might be the degree to which our students become aware of ideas like these. But perhaps a better measure is the degree to which our students internalize these ideas, how much they buy in, how much their perspective changes from one in which they see the value of giving back and doing their part, to one in which they understand and empathize with those they help. Freshmen entering their second semesters often know everything, but what they know is that some people need more help than others and that helping them helps only them. Often what they don’t know is why some need more help, how helping them helps us all, and why it’s our responsibility to do so.