Panelists discuss service learning

Judge Learned Hand got it wrong when he said, "The academic who becomes engaged in social issues will find that he is selling his birthright for a mess of pottage." But scholars can benefit from research and teaching tied to current community issues.

This was the rough consensus that emerged from the Penn faculty and students who participated in the second annual Kellogg Conference on Linking Intellectual Resources and Community Needs, held April 27 at the Faculty Club and University City High School.

SAS Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies Richard Beeman, who described himself as a "converted skeptic" on the value of academically-based community service, set the tone for the conference in his opening address. Beeman noted that university faculty have been "operating for too long on an antiquated model of learning and of teaching," one based on a passive transmission of knowledge from teacher to pupil, and that -- as reformist educational philosopher John Dewey observed -- "learning occurs most often when learners are engaged in the construction of knowledge."

But Beeman cautioned against measuring all scholarship against a practical-application yardstick.

After Beeman's remarks, panels of students and faculty discussed the benefits and pitfalls of community-based scholarship and research. One common pitfall was that without forethought and follow-through, service-learning projects may not actually reflect community needs or produce lasting benefit.

Linguistics Professor William Labov noted that when he spoke to teachers at the Wilson Elementary School about a project to improve reading, "the teachers were talking about the wonderful things Penn people did, and they were all from three years ago. What about two years ago? What about last year?"

Similarly, Jamal Harris (C'98) emphasized the need for service-learning projects to be true partnerships between community members and college students and teachers. "Wanting to do good is not enough," he said.

Originally published on May 14, 1998