Dewey at his worst

I have found myself in the midst of possibly one of the worst incarnations of Dewey's pedagogy. It is a mix of some really great ideas and some really horrific ideas. Can it be salvaged? My short answer is "Yes". But should it be? Perhaps.

This creature I'm talking about is Academic Service-Learning (AS-L). AS-L has many different definitions and various proponents in the academic sphere. At my university, there is an AS-L office that offers fellowships for interested faculty members. I am one of the fellows thanks to an overly "helpful" department head who signed me up without asking me first.

As for the definition, AS-L is commonly defined as a teaching methodology that utilizes community service to help students gain a deeper understanding of course content, gain new knowledge and engage in civic activity. [Bold mine] At its best, AS-L provides students with a means of developing knowledge inductively through active engagement with course content in real world settings. Individual reflections on the engagement is a key component of AS-L and focuses the student on lessons learned, helping students to understand complex, theoretical subjects. An outside project I use for systems analysis and design could fall under this best view of AS-L. For this project students must contact outside organizations, discover an information system need they have, then analyze and design a system for them. Their outside project mirrors the lessons I present in class on the procedures for analyzing and designing information systems. While students may receive a highly theoretical understanding of analysis and design in the class, the real world case concertizes the issues for them. Reflection throughout the semester helps them to tie the concrete project experiences to the theory learned in class.

At its worst, AS-L focuses on the bold part of the definition above. Some argue that AS-L is only AS-L if civic responsibility is an integral part of the experience. They state that service to the community is an end in itself. They refer to helping the disadvantaged, whether poor, old, mentally impaired, or anyone else who is unable to help themselves. Its an attempt to instill specific philosophic beliefs on students by forcing them to view the world through the instructors point of view. Sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit is the stance that a community is only as good as the worst elements in it. Advocates appeal to socialism as a political ideal and selflessness as a moral truth. Worse still, it is done in the disguise of academic learning.

Are the best and worst elements unavoidably intertwined? No. While there are some in academic spheres who would argue yes, they are wishing that it is so that they can control the usage of the term AS-L. In their world, if you are doing academic learning through service to some organization or group of people that is not needy or non-for-profit or fits their narrow view, then you should call it something other than AS-L. But that is complete non-sense. There is no logical reason to have two terms for the same thing.

Can AS-L be rescued from those attempting to pervert its usefulness in academic learning? Maybe, but it'll take many advocates that I'm not sure exist at this point. Most academics in general, and nearly all familiar with AS-L tend to be highly socialistic. To fight for clear and unadulterated use of the term AS-L will take more advocates than exist at this point. Its a battle that probably won't be won in the near future and probably one that won't be won unless a new term is adopted. But when I say I use AS-L in my classroom, please understand what I mean by it is not the convoluted mess that others mean by it.


  1. With regard to AS-L, we understand perfectly. Great idea, but easily misled.

    It's smililar to OBE (Outcome Based Education) which measures the whole of a student's worth. The question becomes: Who is measuring the outcome of the student?

    Great ideas, but we need to be broad (as in universal) in our reason and perspectives.

    I appreciate your perspective on this and many other issues!

    Keep up the blogging!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Bob!

    While I've heard of outcome based education in passing, I really have no clue what it represents. But your question hits an essential point: Who indeed?

    I would add one thing to the analysis of these ideas. It's not just about being broad in our reasons, but being true to reality - being objective. That may have been what you meant, but it wasn't clear to me.