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«SERVICE LEARNING: THE ODD CASE ETHICS OF William L. Blizek University of Nebraska at Omaha When I began considering adding a service learning ...»

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William L. Blizek

University of Nebraska at Omaha

When I began considering adding a service learning component to

my Introduction to Ethics class, I thought that this would be a

no-brainer. There are so many organizations in the community that are

designed to benefit others to which students could contribute service

that finding service learning opportunities would be easy. Students could contribute to, for example, the local food bank, the American Red Cross, the United Way of Omaha, the YMCA or YWCA, a women’s shelter, any one of many hospitals, after school programs for kids, any one of many homes for seniors, and so on. Even if some of these organizations only wanted students to make coffee and copies, there were certainly enough others that really would use the service of my students.

As I began to explore these possibilities, however, it became less clear and more problematic how students’ service to the community would benefit their understanding of ethics. It turns out that ethics is an odd case for service learning, and in this paper I want to share with you why I believe that including a service learning component in a class on ethics is not as simple as it might first appear to be. In order to give a comprehensive account of service learning and ethics I will begin by considering service learning in relation to ethics classes and then I will consider the nature of ethics and what that means for service learning.

I Before turning to service learning and ethics, let me say a word about the nature of service learning that informs the rest of this discussion. Service learning may include a variety of activities but, roughly speaking, service learning requires students to “participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs.”1 This service activity is to be the subject of reflection that provides “further understanding of the course content, a broader appreciation of the 74 Teaching Ethics, Spring 2013 discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility.”2 Given this description of service learning, there are three quite distinct elements of service learning: 1) service to the community, 2) some kind of experiential learning process, and 3) an enhanced sense of civic responsibility.

You might wish to tinker with or tweak this description, but such fine-tuning will not make a significant difference to the issues related to ethics.

Let me begin by considering service to some kind of charitable organization, for example, the local food bank. What kind of service would students provide the local food bank? One could sort donations, for example, placing various canned goods on the appropriate storage shelves “putting peas with peas, corn withcorn.” One could fill the requests of particular clients gathering the requested food stuffs from the shelves and boxing or bagging them up for the clients. One could deliver food to families in the neighborhood. One could interview families to determine their financial status to see if they meet the requirements for using the food bank. One could study poverty in the area and help determine what the requirements for using the food bank should be. One could help to plan a fund raising event or write letters seeking support for the food bank. One could counsel clients regarding other services that might be available to them, such as legal aid. In each case the student would be providing a real service to an organization that meets identified community needs.

What does a student learn by participating in the kinds of service activities identified above? Here are some possibilities. A student might learn something about how a charitable organization works. She might learn that a charitable organization works better as a coop than as a corporation or vice versa. He might learn that it is better to solicit financial support in December than in July, since people find themselves in the holiday spirit in December. She might learn that there is much more (or much less) poverty in her community than she would have imagined. He might find that there are many fewer resources to meet the needs of the poor and hungry than are needed. She might find that much of the food donated to the food bank is essentially inedible. He might learn that people who are ineligible for assistance try to get it anyway they try to scam the system. She might learn that the city tries to keep the food bank and its activities out of sight away from the public.

He might learn that religious organizations contribute most of the food to the food bank, or that religious organizations operate in competition W. L. Blizek: Service Learning: The Odd Case of Ethics 75 with the food bank. She might learn that it is a good thing to help the poor, or that helping the poor in particular ways only feeds the cycle of poverty and dependence.

The list in the paragraph above is designed to show only the kinds of things that a student might learn while working at the food bank.

What students actually learn might be something quite different. There may be other things that might be learned as well, but the list above seems to me both a good example of the kind of thing that might be learned at the food bank and it also serves to indicate the kinds of things that might be learned by students, whatever organization they serve. In other words, the kinds of learning outcomes listed above are the kinds that we would expect in any service learning experience in organizations that meet identified community needs.

The question that we must now ask is what these service learning outcomes have to do with ethics. How do the service learning activities at the food bank help students understand ethics? And, the answers to these questions seem to me to generate exactly the kind of problem that makes ethics an odd case for service learning.

What does putting peas with peas, corn with corn, tell us about ethics? I ask that question because it is the most blatant example of service that tells us nothing about ethics. But, I believe that the same can be said for most of the learning outcomes noted above. What does the fact that a charitable organization works better as a coop than a corporation (or vice versa) tell us about ethics? What does the fact that there is more (or less) poverty in the community than the student thought tell us about ethics? How does knowing that some people try to cheat the system help us understand ethics? And, so on. I think that most of the learning outcomes identified with the food bank fall into this category and that service to similar organizations also would fall into the category of learning outcomes that do not contribute to our understanding of ethics.

There are, however, two possible outcomes that should be considered. First, I think that the food bank (or any charitable organization) has a moral obligation to operate as efficiently or effectively as possible. That is, the moral obligation of those who work at the food bank is to do as much good as possible with the resources available. So, if a student learns that charitable organizations are more effective if they operate like a coop than a corporation, then he knows that the particular organization for which he works needs to change the way it is organized. For the student, the question becomes how do you 76 Teaching Ethics, Spring 2013 get the people of an organization to change the structure of the organization so that it does more good when those people are comfortable doing things in the less efficient way and are resistant to change? This is, I think, the kind of moral problem that a student might encounter while providing service to a charitable organization. And, this is the kind of moral problem upon which a student might reflect in conversation with other students in a class on ethics.

Unfortunately, this kind of problem arises in a particular situation by accident. A student might work for thirty different charitable organizations before encountering this problem. While the service the student provides does raise a question worthy of consideration from a moral point of view, if the question arises by accident, is it worth having students provide service to charitable organizations? My sense here is that service learning ought to regularly help students understand ethics and while there may be some problems like getting people to act more effectively, these will not be numerous and they will arise accidentally.

The second outcome that should be considered is learning that it is a good thing to help the poor. I would have taken this to be one of those things we all learn in kindergarten, but others have argued that you can know that it is good to help the poor in different ways. What we learned in kindergarten is a basic principle to help others, especially those in need. This seems rather straight forward and uncomplicated. It does not seem to me that someone needs to work at the food bank to learn that we should help the poor. But, it has been pointed out to me that the basic principle is an


principle with which we might be familiar we can repeat the principle when called upon but which would not have much impact on our behavior. When we encounter poverty first hand, however, the principle may have an impact on our behavior. That is, it may encourage us or inspire us to act on the abstract principle with which we are already familiar but do not act upon.3 I think that the idea of knowing experientially is correct. Having particular experiences does encourage us or motivate us to act in ways that we would not otherwise act. I am willing to accept that experiences may motivate us in a way that abstract principles do not. But, apart from “helping the poor is a good thing,” I am not sure what experiences will change student behaviors or what experiences will help students “know” a basic moral principle differently. I am not sure what other moral principles will be affected by the experiences of the students at the food bank, and, I am not sure to what extent students will come to know even that “helping the poor is a good thing.” W. L. Blizek: Service Learning: The Odd Case of Ethics 77 It is easy to see how “knowing” “that helping the poor is a good thing” through some kinds of experiences is different from knowing the abstract principle. It is not easy, however, to see which of the learning outcomes described above will be influenced in some significant way by the service experiences we might expect working for some charitable organization. Before committing to a service learning component in my ethics classes I will want to understand a good deal more about which principles can be known experientially.

This discussion leads to the issue of experiential learning in relation to ethics. I do believe that experiential learning is important to understanding ethics, but I am not sure that the experiences of service to a charitable organization are the best experiences for understanding about ethics. Let me suggest just two possible experiences we might ask students to have in order to better understand ethics. The first is “going hungry.” The second is “lying to your parents.” Suppose that I want my students to empathize with children who go hungry, to empathize with hungry children to an extent that the students take steps to alleviate hunger in the community. Most of the activities noted above in relation to the food bank do not seem to me to be activities that will generate much empathy. But, if a student delivers food to needy people in the neighborhood or interviews people to see whether they meet the requirements for receiving food from the food bank, that student might develop some empathy for those in need that he or she would not by simply reading a text on poverty in America.

But, if I want my students to empathize with children who go hungry, would it not be more effective to put them on a diet that causes them to go to bed hungry for a couple of weeks? For safety reasons (not to mention university insurance costs) any such diet would have to be physician supervised and this might make putting students on a diet that sends them to bed hungry impractical. But an activity that fraternities or sororities often undertake to develop empathy for the homeless is to spend a few nights living in a tent in the park or on the lawn of the campus. This works best, of course, when the temperature drops down to ten degrees or less, even if the students have expensive, high tech tents.

You can give the students, of course, only one thin blanket and take away the expensive sleeping bag usually used by Arctic explorers and this will add to the experience.

When students need to use the bathroom, they will have to find a building that is open. It will usually be a long walk from the tent. When students want to eat, they will have a long walk, especially if the tent is in 78 Teaching Ethics, Spring 2013 a park. And, after a few days without a shower or bath, students will need to find some place where they can shower for free (they do not get to go home for a shower every day). Students cannot drive a car or spend more than ten dollars a day on food. No computer or I-Pod. No cell phone.

Two weeks of this kind of activity and it seems to me thatstudents will develop empathy for the homeless in a way that handing out blankets at the local shelter will not do. There may be many different ways to give students the experience of hunger or homelessness none of which is the result of service to an organization that meets the needs of the community.

The second example is to simply ask students when they last lied to their parents (you can substitute anyone else here). Neither the teacher nor the class has to know the details of the lie, but some role playing here will give students a remarkable experience that does have a great deal to do with ethics. Ask one student to play the role of the parent. Ask the other student to now tell the parent the truth. The student does not even need to say the truth out loud. They simply have to imagine that they are in fact speaking the truth to the parent here represented by another student. Now we ask the student to reflect on why it is that they lied and how it felt to tell the truth. All of this experience is crucial to changing our behavior lying less, telling the truth more frequently.

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