Service-Learning vs. Charity

Written by Allison Grossberg, WLLC 2015-2016

George Christophe Lichtenberg, a German scientist, is attributed with the quote,

“I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is that they must change if they are to get better.”

Many universities throughout the world share in Lichtenberg’s desire for change, and they place a great deal of emphasis upon creating lasting, sustainable change within the community. This is most often done by means of service learning projects in which students play an active role in collaborating with community members to gain a better understanding of the issues they face and to learn the best methods for facilitating change.

As discussed in Carol Mitchell’s article entitled, From notions of charity to social justice in service-learning: The complex experience of communities, however, it seems that the focus many universities’ have placed on service learning projects are giving way to a greater focus on providing charity. Mitchell explains that service-learning, “embodies the ‘scholarship of engagement’ and in so doing develops active, democratic citizen.” She goes on to explain that the service learning process also creates doubt, discomfort, and disequilibrium as student’s encounter situations within the community that are new to them, which in turn causes them, “to evoke questions about social realities and one’s role in them.” In this way, service-learning involves more complexity and more conflict than charity does. With the loss of active struggle on the part of the student, charity can often result in negative outcomes for the community and a loss of learning for the student.

Mitchell elaborates on this by stating, John Dewey observed that charity too often results in one class “achieving merit by doing things gratuitously for an inferior class” (cited in Morton, 1997, p.8). Charity “too readily becomes an excuse for maintaining laws and social arrangements which ought themselves to be changed in the interests of fair play” (Morton, 1997, p.8). Charity also emphasizes the ‘service provider’ and undervalues the ‘recipient’ resulting in power imbalances that leave the community with feelings of resentment towards the university because they feel like a laboratory in which the university ‘experiments’ (Rosner-Salazar, 2003) or demonstrates its ‘social relevance.’

It is clear then that universities and students that want to better themselves, their communities, and the institutions to which they belong need to place an emphasis on service-learning projects over charity. Students and community members should continue to collaborate, and struggle through doubt and conflict together in the hopes of creating important change and bettering society. 







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