When I applied to college, one essay choice was to describe a course that should be required for first-year students. My idea: "Practical Idealism 101," which examined the leadership of social-change agents like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Susan B. Anthony.
Of course, once I started college, it became clear that holding onto idealism, immersing myself in intellectual exploration, and figuring out how to make it all practical in the "real world" would be a lifelong, not a semester-long, endeavor. For one thing, those real-world opportunities seemed peripheral - sporadic volunteer days, lists of summer internships, an occasional student protest.
Colleges now do much more to help students make those links, by tying community-based activities directly into academic courses. It's encouraging that higher education is responding more directly to students' desire to "make a difference" while they're learning (see page 15). But as today's lead story explains, disagreements abound as to what qualifies as "service learning." Some professors are concerned that academic credit might be awarded simply for good works.
Without realizing it, I ended up creating my own service-learning experience. I set up a junior-year internship with a women's organization in Kingston, Jamaica, and paired it with a women's studies course at the local university. I wrote papers that explored how feminist theory and the real-world observations I made overlapped, and how they diverged.
Simply volunteering can provide great lessons. But to ensure that service learning has academic value, it's important to add the requirement that students bring analytical thinking to the table.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society