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  • Service Learning, Multiculturalism, and the Pedagogies of Difference
  • Gregory Jay (bio)

The past decade has brought a variety of efforts to institutionalize service learning in higher education. For my purposes, I will define service learning simply as an educational assignment in which students meet the academic learning goals of a course through an experience working on behalf of others (on defining service learning, see Schutz and Gere 1998: 129). What makes service learning different from volunteering is its explicit academic component: like any test, paper, or research project, the service learning experience must be integral to the syllabus and advance the student’s knowledge of the course content. And just doing the service is not enough: there needs to be an academic “capture” of knowledge through written reflection or multimedia projects or other forms that express what the student has learned. Although the academic character of service learning has been articulated in accounts by many practitioners and promoted by influential figures in higher education circles, service learning continues to struggle to find a firm foothold, especially at four-year colleges and research universities: “Founded and developed by bright and passionate students, enthusiastic faculty, and communityoriented student services staffs, these programs have flourished but have not become well-connected to the academic core of most institutions that house them,” report Janet Eyler and Dwight Giles (1999: 13). Faculty and administration remain suspicious that such initiatives drain time and resources from the essential missions of research and teaching and may be a refuge for those instructors who cannot measure up to traditional standards in those areas. If [End Page 255] service learning is to “go to scale” on such campuses, it must be organized and supported in ways that mesh with, rather than sidestep, the current research and teaching activities of the faculty. At the same time, the successful integration of service learning can substantially enhance those activities in ways that improve student learning while contributing to community development. This essay argues that meeting these goals requires that a pedagogy of “dialogue across differences” become infused into the curriculum and function as the link joining multicultural education to service learning.

Because it connects faculty and students with the surrounding communities, service learning raises issues about race and multiculturalism and social justice. If we engage these issues honestly, rather than simply “celebrating diversity,” we can strengthen a campus’s commitments to equity, tolerance, and civic responsibility. Undertaking this effort, however, will mean engaging a campus, and its communities, in difficult dialogues about difference, discussions that have been a focus of controversy in the theoretical work of recent scholarship as well as in the practical politics of our increasingly acrimonious “culture wars.”1 In their influential essay “Dialogue across Differences,” Nicholas C. Burbules and Suzanne Rice (1991) accept the postmodern critique of Enlightenment ideals such as rationality, consensus, and universality, which in practice have often masked oppressive inequalities of power and recognition based on factors such as race, class, gender, nationality, and sexuality. Still, they argue that this history should not be used to assert an absolutist claim that no dialogue is possible, or that no one can understand anyone else who is different from themselves: “There is no reason to assume that dialogue across differences involves either eliminating those differences or imposing one group’s views on others; dialogue that leads to understanding, cooperation, and accommodation can sustain differences within a broader compact of toleration and respect” (402). Any kind of social life requires that different individuals negotiate common goals based on some limited set of shared values, a process that is never perfect and never equally just for all participants in the same way. Especially in a democracy, individuals need experience in negotiating dialogue across difference, practicing skills of listening, interpretation, negotiation, and mutual understanding. This is necessary not because all people are the same; indeed, such negotiation would not be required were we all identical clones. It is precisely because we recognize the inevitability and value of difference that we seek to create dialogues across differences. Robert Rhoads (1997: 10) advances this argument as well in Community Service and Higher Learning, which presents persuasive accounts of how student service projects can...


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