Every year, students leave their homes to attend college with the hope of achieving their personal and academic goals. While acknowledging that students have diverse goals, many individuals share the aim of obtaining a college degree and participating in their campus communities in various capacities (e.g., Greek life, service learning, etc.). Through these involvements, students can learn more about their interests and other communities while becoming engaged citizens. Though students can engage in many opportunities, one question remains: “What is the role of a higher education institution?”
Recently in one of my classes we read and discussed “Citizen Formation Is Not Our Job” by Stanley Fish. Fish states that “promoting virtuous citizenship is no doubt a worthy goal, but it is not an academic goal, because … it is a political goal.” I am a current graduate student in the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education and a firm believer in providing students opportunities to participate in activities that will challenge their ideas and skills. This article failed to acknowledge that civic engagement and service learning provide students opportunities to learn more about communities and other individuals.
Citizen formation is the role of higher education, because it equips students with the tools they need to engage in communities and become informed citizens. Institutions should provide students service learning opportunities to reflect on their role and the impact they want to have even after they leave the institution.
Fish states that “volunteerism is in general a good thing, it is not an academic thing and those who take it up should not receive academic credit for doing so.” Volunteerism is beneficial to both the student and the community, but the point is not whether a student should or should not receive academic credit for volunteering. Instead, we should ask what the students learned through their engagement in the service learning opportunities.
Though higher education provides academic coursework that will give students the skills they need to secure a job, the overall goal of higher education should be to ensure that students will become committed citizens. Service learning allows students to learn about the social issues that affect their involvement in communities beyond graduation.
As an undergraduate student, I participated in the Alternative Break programs. This experience challenged me to reflect on lessons learned in the classroom, to collaborate with individuals whom I otherwise would have never engaged with and to learn about the challenges communities face. Participating in service learning allowed me think about how my work affects communities around me and how I can make an impact.
One argument Fish proposes is that service learning has a political undertone that typically leans toward a more liberal point of view. I would challenge that belief and say that service learning can be done without political agendas. Students can participate in various service learning opportunities, such as literacy or tutoring programs, reading to hospital patients and coaching a youth sports team, just to name a few. If the concern is truly that there is a political agenda behind service learning, students can decide whether or not to not engage in these projects or find one that aligns more with their interests.
As we try to define what the role of higher education is, we need to remember that these institutions benefit both students and society. By providing students with service learning opportunities, students are challenged to learn inside and outside the classroom. If the role of a higher education institution is to prepare students for the future, challenging students to get involved in service learning opportunities allows them to increase their civic engagement and make a lasting impact in their community.
Cynthia Sanchez is a Rackham student.