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The Common Read, Service Learning, and Social Justice: Forging Connections

There's a harrowing scene in chapter 1 of this year's common read, The Dressmaker of Khair Khana, in which young, shaloq-weilding Taliban "enforcers" beat a woman in the street for appearing in public without a proper chadri, the full-length garment that covers the head and face. This and other descriptions of the Taliban in the early parts of the book bring to mind images of an oppressive totalitarian regime more similar to 1984 or Farenheit 451 than to the free society in which most of our freshmen have grown up. That is, these images should remind students of the vast gulf between life in the U.S. and that in a strange, far-away place halfway around the globe. Unfortunately, these images instead bring to mind other images that happen to be saturating the news at the start of the semester: those of heavily armed and armored police confronting protestors in Ferguson, Missouri. Timing here proves to be everything, as a poll of my Freshman Seminar students on what they feel are our most pressing social problems reveals police brutality, racial profiling, and racial bias in our law enforcement and criminal justice systems at the top of the list. And with numbers like 1 in 12 black males age 18-64 spending time in prison, compared to 1 in 87 whites, blacks overall incarcerated at a rate of 6 times that of whites, and blacks comprising 40% of the total prison population, while making up 12% of the U.S. population, it's easy to see why our students are concerned.

In order to work toward social justice, we must first identify where social injustice exists. And with disparities based on race, gender, class, ethnicity existing across the spectrum of our social systems, from education to health care to employment to criminal justice, identifying injustice is as easy now as at any point in our history, and, unfortunately, as easy as idetifying it under systems like the Taliban. But while these gaps are easy to see, to those who simply wish to open their eyes, they also remain equally difficult to address, to reconcile, to alleviate, to end. For every pious organization out on the streets fighting to alleviate suffering, to mend communities, to help people, there are powerful historical realities, political forces, and financial interests at work to keep the status quo in place, to keep reality fixed and unchangeable.

A discussion of life under the Taliban is a perfectly suitable way to begin a dialogue with students about the society in which we are preparing them to inhabit roles of leadership, our own society. And as we move toward our service learning projects in the sping, it's worth remebering the underlying imbalances at the heart of any attempt to help improve our community. Ultimately, if our service is effective, then we will have eliminated the very need for our services. Those being "served" will inhabit their rightful place as equals in our society, wanting for nothing that others have only because of the conditions of their birth. This type of transformation, both of our society and within the mindset our students, can never come solely from doing, but through thinking as well. Hence, the learning in service learning. Learning comes through teaching, and fortunately for them, that is what we are here to do.

J. Tuman

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