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Liberating Service Learning and the Rest of Higher Education Civic Engagement

reviewed by Maria Avila

coverTitle: Liberating Service Learning and the Rest of Higher Education Civic Engagement
Author(s): Randy Stoecker
Publisher: Temple University Press, Philadelphia
ISBN: 1439913528, Pages: 228, Year: 2016
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This book’s premise engaged me deeply. I found myself agreeing, disagreeing, comparing Stoecker’s community organizing and civic engagement perspectives with my own, wanting to believe his liberatory proposal, and then wondering if his intention is simply to agitate us, push our buttons, and challenge us to do better. After all, to many in the field of civic engagement, he symbolizes the voice that disturbs and creates discomfort. He certainly does this in Liberating Service Learning and the Rest of Higher Education Civic Engagement. For what Stoecker aims to do, this tone and stance is a must, even if he risks alienating some readers or seeming self-righteous.


Like Stoecker, I get tired of the Deweyan historical context in which service learning and civic engagement tend to be situated, and I am pleased with Stoecker’s “counterintuitive” (p. 11) history, which takes us back to the beginning of the settlement house movement in London in 1884. He does this because, to him, using Dewey’s work has led to institutionalized service learning (ISL) that “privileges higher education-centric models and official service learning systems (like federal programs)” (p. 10). These types of ISL “emphasize the learning half of the phrase, with requirements for experiential pedagogy, reflection exercises, and the like, and most require students to be in a course, put in hours in some community agency, and write reflection papers” (p. 10). Stoecker makes a strong argument that this type of SL definition does not create “a theoretical understanding of the underlying social/political/economic issues exhibited by the placement” (p. 11). He adds that this definition excludes community-based research, and that “many community groups find our obsession with defining service learning to be pedantic and distracting” (p. 11). In addition, Stoecker asserts that there is no evidence that Dewey engaged his students in service learning. “Rather, it was described as sometimes nonlinear lecture and often wide-ranging back-and-forth discussion. And it was always described as happening in the classroom” (p. 13).


My SL approach is underpinned by the social work practice of community organizing, both in Mexico and in the US. Therefore, tracing the historical roots of SL back to the settlement house movement (which also happens to be where social work can trace its roots), appeals to me. Stoecker begins with Toynbee Hall, the settlement house founded by Samuel Barnett in East London in 1884, and explains that the name Toynbee was chosen “to honor the late Oxford economic historian Arnold Toynbee, who was the engaged scholar role model of his times because of his work with the poor of London’s East End” (p. 11). Toynbee Hall was referred to as the Universities Settlement, and its purpose was “’to link the Universities with East London, and to direct the human sympathies, the energies, and the public spirit of Oxford and Cambridge to the actual conditions of town life”’ (p. 11). Thus, in this and many other settlement houses in the UK and US, students taught and learned with community members, while the students also lived in the settlement house. Students’ community engagement was done with guidance from engaged faculty and in the context of the social and political conditions of the time, not simply as volunteer charity. This distinction is at the heart of Stocker’s main premise, which is that Liberating Service Learning (LSL) should have as its main priority working with communities to address poverty and other social problems, not just creating civically engaged college students, which is the primary goal of current ISL practices.


Liberating Service Learning and the Rest of Higher Education Civic Engagement offers specific ways to move us toward LSL. I highlight two concepts here; the first, allyship, because it helped me understand a different level and definition of reciprocity, and the second, community organizing, because community organizing has been central to my civic engagement work of many years.


Stoecker makes a distinction between reciprocity and allyship, namely that the former is based on an exchange of benefits between students and those with whom they practice SL. He argues that this concept does not address the role that SL can have in our own liberation. In the case of allyship, on the other hand, “my benefit does not come from a direct exchange with others, but from my own improved self-understanding, understanding of oppression, and participation in ending oppressive social structures that harm me as well” (p. 131).


Stoecker is also emphatic about the role that community organizing must play in LSL. By engaging in community organizing, academics can enhance the capacities of the constituents with whom they are in allyship, and therefore contribute to reaching the constituents’ goals to create social change. In his view, we as academics must know community organizing and teach it to our students, and higher education institutions must hire community organizers. Stoecker also argues that we need to be selective about the type of groups with whom we practice allyship. He focuses on constituencies whose purpose is to work with “those who are oppressed, exploited, and excluded” (p. 133). He warns us against practicing allyship with not-for-profit organizations who have become part of the nonprofit industrial complex.


The community organizer in me welcomes the challenges posed by Stoecker and his thoughts about the role that community organizing can play in moving us toward LSL. But as Stoecker illustrates, community organizing can mean different things to different people. His description of community organizing is focused on a model that ignores the kind of change that we as academics have a responsibility to create within our institutions. This type of change is necessary so that we can be in allyship with our own colleagues and thereby create LSL opportunities for ourselves, for and with our students, and for and with our administrators. As Stoecker describes, higher education institutions have been “transformed by privatization into places with less and less academic freedom and autonomy and more and more concern for ‘serving customers’ such as students and corporations” (p. 24). In this type of environment, academics, students, staff, and administrators work in oppressive and dysfunctional conditions which affect our minds, bodies, and souls. As my mother used to tell me when I was doing field work as a social work student: eres candil de la calle y obscuridad de tu casa (you are a light in the streets, but darkness at home). My mother was right. We cannot focus on social justice in or with external communities without attending to the injustices in our own institutions.


Perhaps Stoecker is right about the problems with institutionalizing SL, but perhaps this is not the main issue. Rather, I believe we must begin by creating the institutional conditions that would give academics the rewards and support needed to practice LSL. This is about “my own improved self-understanding, understanding of oppression, and participation in ending oppressive social structures that harm me as well” (p. 131). We can begin the process of bringing light into our home, and invite external groups and communities to do the same as they, too, have been transformed by privatization. This is a different type of organizing and allyship than what Stoecker is challenging us to do, and it may not be what he or most in the civic engagement movement are interested in or have energy for. Nevertheless, I do believe it is time to stop being candil de la calle y obscuridad de our home.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, 2018, p. -
http://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22361, Date Accessed: 10/18/2018 12:22:51 AM

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