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Affectionate Interpretation: Service Learning As An American Tradition
December 31, 1969
A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to attend the National Conference on Volunteering and Service in Chicago. As I wandered around the beautiful city, I mulled over one of the major themes for this year's conference: A New Generation of Service. Service, it had always seemed to me, was something that took place on a small scale that affected large scale issues.
However, as I thought over the implications of a new generation of service, I realized that I was seriously mistaken. While service is something that is possible on a small scale, each small-scale effort is a part of a larger movement, a larger generation. I realized, as I stood in the shadows of such service landmarks as the Hull House
and John Dewey's Laboratory School, that service is an ideal extending back through multiple generations. Volunteerism and service, moreover, are an American ideal.
In the United States today, it is Independence Day. Like most American holidays, it is celebrated across the country with delicious food, fireworks, and red, white, and blue party favors. We often take the time during this special day to think about our troops who are serving abroad or of those good people who made the United States what it is today. So, in honor of America's 236th birthday, I'm going to share with you three of the people that I think are invaluable in America's (and the world's) legacy of service and volunteerism. While this list only covers three of the “thousand points of light” in the history of service, these wonderful people have made a contribution to both service and culture that isn't easily forgotten.
John Dewey was an American educational sociological philosopher and educator whose reforms have contributed greatly to experiential learning theories around the world. While John Dewey is most often remembered for his contributions to education, I think that he should be remembered for something a little more basic--his understanding of the causation between education and social well-being.
In 1896, frustrated with the current options for education, John Dewey Founded what would become The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. What he wanted was for students to learn, not merely through instruction, but through experiencing the knowledge for themselves. His curriculum often included cooking, building, and other methods that he felt allowed students to interact with the concepts that they were to learn on a practical level.
What, of course, does this have to do with service? Dewey's theory of ex
periential learning serves as some of the deepest roots for what we now call service learning. Volunteers across the nation, in programs such as the Minnesota Reading Corps operate off of these very theories that were and still are, rather radical.
In Chicago around the same time as John Dewey was Jane Addams. Addams, while still in her twenties, helped organize the Hull House after traveling abroad and visiting the similar Toynbee Hall in England. Addams intended Hull House to be a neighborhood center where people could better themselves by having access to education, art, music, and intellectual conversation. Addams especially emphasized the education of women and children in her attempt to improve the opportunities for success for the surrounding Italian immigrants.
Jane Addams legacy, however, extends far beyond her work at the Hull House. Scholars have long remarked that if you read Addams' work now, it would read as “a creative but typical description of service learning” (Daynes 5). However, the problem is that at the time Addams was working, service learning was a concept that was unheard of. While philanthropists of the time had long looked to ways to improve the life of the poor, Addams advocated “affectionate interpretation,” or the attempt to help someone through empathy and understanding rather than a general attempt to better the life of their class. Owing to this belief that mutual understanding is always possible, Adams was a staunch pacifist for her entire life.
I had a hard time choosing a final person to feature in this article. After all, there are so many wonderful men and women who have greatly contributed to the world ofservice that we now know. However, since I chose two people who were more on the theory side of service, I decide to devote this one to a person devoted to service in policy.
Americans have been lucky enough to have multiple presidents that have supported volunteerism and service learning, but Kennedy has the distinction of being the person who fueled the creation of the Peace Corps. I have often wondered if Kennedy knew what he was getting into when he proposed the Peace Corps while campaigning--but even if he did not, his legacy is absolute.
The Peace Corps celebrated its fiftieth anniversary last year and the mark that it has made on both service learning and the nature of volunteerism is larger than perhaps any other program. Now, there are many types of long-term volunteer programs and yet the Peace Corps remains the paramount experience of active diplomacy abroad.
Of course, the legacy of each of these people is not limited to the United States. Rather, what they have done is relevant to the entire world in the revolution that brought service learning to the forefront of international development. As I finish this article, I hope that you will think today, not only of our troops and history as the United States, but also as a nation that cherishes service and of those who have helped make us this way. The future is bright for service learning, and I hope that remembrance of such pioneers of service learning and volunteerism will only lead to even greater heroes for the future.
For further reading, I highly recommend these books and articles:
The Metaphysical Club: A History of American Thought by Louis Menand
Jane Addams and the Origins of Service Learning by Gary Danes and Nicholas Longo
Photos courtesy of Nick1066 and Robert S. Donovan