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A Look Inside the Soul of Service Learning

Service learning is, in a very technical sense, just that: learning through service. But why does this matter? Here, we explore the philosophical and spiritual foundations of service learning.

Service learning is, in a very technical sense, just that: learning through service. Students engage in activities that serve others and through those activities, learn more about their world and themselves. But why does this matter? Here, one university insider explores the philosophical and spiritual foundations of service learning—and why they matter more than you might think.

When you start to feel old, you think a lot about the next generations. These days, I wonder more than ever how you can be prepared to lead the world through the unresolved challenges older generations leave to the younger ones. But I’m reminded of service learning and the restorative foundation it provides students and the societies they inherit. Good service learning programs are an important part of preparation in a college education. They are structured to help students develop a clear sense of identity, an understanding of the real world, experience with problem solving, and a heart to be helpful.

One day your generation will have a lot of unsolved problems to sort out. And at some point you will need to get a job. But here’s the big secret of higher education: employers do not hire degrees. They hire people. Not only that, but they prefer to hire people with a clear sense of identity, an understanding of the real world, experience with problem solving, and, yes, a heart to be helpful. Service learning provides a training program that helps students to be prepared for what employers—and the world—are most eager to find.

Service learning is about you

Learning is really about how a person lives meaningfully in the world around them, and it creates situations for personal assessments and for feedback to be normalized. When you work with others on a project, you learn a lot about yourself. Some of it you learn from what others reflect on you. Some of it you learn from what you see in yourself.

Service learning provides you with three critical questions to help you know yourself: your gifts (How are you skilled in a special way?), your passion (Who or what do you love most?), and your sense of calling (Where do you have the opportunity to make a difference?). When you see where the answers intersect, you will have a clearer sense of your identity. Employers want to hire people who have a clear sense of identity. If you know yourself, and have the courage to be authentic, then they will feel like they can trust you—both your character to be yourself and your competence to get things done.

Service learning is also not about you

All people are trying to find a meaningful life. One of the ways they do this is by asking basic questions like “who are we?” and “why are we here?” Service learning helps us answer those questions by getting us outside of the classroom where we have to deal with the “real world.” By working with real situations, we learn to accept the world that is here instead of the world that we imagine or wish was here. By working with other people on shared projects, we have to accept that other people have different backgrounds and different perspectives, and it will help us see ourselves in the right place.

If you want to make a meaningful difference in the world, you need to understand—by experience—the real world, as it truly exists. Many of us have active imaginations or we spend a lot of time in “virtual reality.” But employers don’t get to live in those pretend worlds. They want to hire people who “get it.” Service learning helps students to engage the world in a meaningful way.

Service learning is not about activism

Structured service learning programs give students opportunities to look beneath the surface of common problems in society. Through regular work with other people on difficult challenges, students are invited to wrestle with complexity, cause and effect relationships, second- and third-order consequences, etc. They learn to assess their circumstances by seeing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. They learn to consider strategies in systemic processes, organizational structure, cultural trend analysis, reactive vs. proactive actions, etc. And most importantly, they become engaged agents with responsibility for society. This draws students into more than speculation and more than simple reaction. Through hands-on engagement with real-world challenges, students become hungry for real solutions, and they often commit their own gifts and passion to the project. Employers are looking for people who have this hunger and are resolved to satisfy it with helpful, productive, solution-oriented action.

Service learning is about the heart

As we have discussed, service learning helps the heart to be tuned into reality and solutions. But it also helps the heart to be tuned to the needs of society—a collection of others. This is important because we live in a culture dominated by “careerism.” Careerism is the belief that an education is only designed to help you get a job and a paycheck. Schools that have given in to careerism prioritize the teaching of job skills or knowledge that has practical value at work. While both are very important for you to be a competent employee, they are not enough to give you a meaningful life or for you to contribute meaningfully to the lives of others. Instead of careerism, I prefer the concept of vocation.

This word, “vocation,” comes from a Latin root meaning “calling.” When your work is fueled by a sense of calling, it is assumed that your work is for someone else. It comes with a sense of ought and must. You are compelled to do your work for some greater good. The surprising trade-off is that when you give up your life for a calling, you end up finding the meaningful life you were looking for all along.

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