CCR Blog

Service-Learning Research, Civic Commitment, and the Need for Reflection

Mar 19 2012 Kelli Covey
Students building a house

Recommended: a 1995 article by Keith Morton, of the Feinstein Institute at Providence College, on “The Irony of Service: Charity, Project Work, Social Change.” This is a remarkably thoughtful critique of the pervasive service-learning assumption that students (and all of us) should “progress” along a continuum of service, from charity through project work to social change. Morton suggests that both charity and project work have their own inherent value, and he also questions whether we can “move” students from one paradigm to the other. He concludes that the most appropriate goal, at least for his service-learning program at Providence College, is not to move students along a continuum of service, but “to help them articulate more fully what they believe about the practice and meaning of service, and to challenge them to work with ever-increasing integrity and insight.” (30)

Morton describes this goal as one of deepening or “thickening” students’ paradigms, and he distinguishes between thin and thick paradigms (borrowing from Clifford Geertz) as follows: "Thin paradigms are essentially self-contradictory, resulting in actions not consistent with ideals. Thick paradigms by contrast are “grounded in deeply held, internally coherent values; match means and ends; describe a primary way of interpreting and relating to the world; offer a way of defining problems and solutions; and suggest a vision of what a transformed world might look like.”

So in a nutshell, a thick paradigm is a way of being in the world that has integrity, defined as “consistency between ideals and practice.” A thin paradigm lacks that integrity.

A 2006 article by Robert Bringle et al tested Morton’s ideas and developed some measures for integrity, including:

  • Willingness to recruit other volunteers as measure of public commitment
  • Degree to which friends know about one’s interest in service
  • Interest in making a difference over time
  • Thinking about service when away from it
  • Role of community service as part of identity
  • Degree to which community service is transformational of one’s life
  • Empathic responses
  • Identification with those served

Most interesting of all, Bringle et al found that high integrity correlates with a “blurred” distinction between different kinds of service (e.g. charity v.s social change). This suggests to me that activities that deepen or thicken our understanding of our service could also make us less rigid in our response to the world–and less judgmental of those who respond differently.

So what kinds of activities can help students “articulate more fully what they believe about the practice and meaning of service?” Hmmmm. Well, Morton is quoted at the end of the Bringle article (a decade after his article) saying, in a personal communication:

“My thinking now is the challenge is providing more opportunities for “deepening” across enough variety [of service experiences] that student find an experience that tracks. . . with their cognitive or affective map. So the goal is not an opportunity for a service “match,” but an opportunity for greater depth. Thus, the reflection process is perhaps more important than the activity itself.”


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