Service Learning, Schools, and Society.

Posted Monday May 18, 2009 by Lisa Gunders in |

Warning: this post is going to be a bit of a ‘when I was a nipper’ rant, so if you don’t like it either tune out now or go and put on your VHS of “The Three Yorkshiremen”.

A couple of weeks ago I went to the 2009 Values Education Conference. This is the annual showcase conference for the Values Education Program originally funded under the Howard Government but continued under the Rudd Government. It was a little like attending an evangelical meeting really, and some of the main protagonists seemed equally suspicious of academics.

The latest buzzword from the conference seems to be “service learning” and it is seen as a natural progression of the program so far, which has concentrated on educating students into particular values which are deemed to be necessary for effective learning and, more broadly, a cohesive, democratic society. The basic idea behind service learning is that students will learn values best if they have a chance to put them into practice: “head, heart and hands learning” as Thomas Neilsen, one of the presenters, put it. Students are engaged in various “giving” projects such as raising money for charitable causes or organising recycling programs; giving of themselves and doing things for others.

Personally, I think that service learning is a good idea, and have been arguing this point privately to family members who are now sick of me going on about it. However, I am a bit concerned that this is yet another thing being crammed into an already overcrowded school curriculum. You see (back in my day bit) I remember a time when students engaged in service learning through various church activities and church youth groups, community service groups (e.g. Rural Youth, junior arms of Rotary clubs, etc.), Duke of Edinburgh Awards, and kids activity clubs. Their parents often, though not always, set the example by being involved in the ‘adult’ equivalents, or raising money for charities and school fetes, or working on parents’ committees, or getting involved in local business men’s organisations. At least in the youth groups that I was either involved with or knew about, something changed in about the early to mid 1980s, when the focus moved from a balance of social service, spiritual development, and training into meeting procedure and group leadership to a situation where the ‘leaders’ were there to entertain the ‘members’ and devotions were sort of tacked on at the end.

During the late 1970s and 1980s there were a lot of changes though, especially in the economy and employment in Australia. There was also a sense in many circles that society was starting to break down and that parents weren’t teaching their kids what they needed to be good citizens. Hence in the late 1970s we got sex education in schools, followed some time later by driver education, drugs awareness, and ‘work experience programs’, and most recently “values education”. Things that parents mostly used to do. Realistically, everything I’ve been talking about was never the case for everyone and was largely confined to the middle-classes anyway, but there was a critical mass that kept things going.

With the addition of “service learning” to the values education programs in schools, it seems to me that schools are now being asked to take up responsibilities that used to fall to social institutions on top of tasks that used to be expected of parents. Oh, and somewhere in there they are also supposed to teach “the basics.” Many teachers are in favour of these programs and there are a lot of benefits to be gained individually and collectively from them. Many teachers are also concerned at the ever-growing list of things that they are supposed to accomplish in a school day. If there is a social problem, we and more particularly governments and policy makers, demand that schools address them. But maybe social problems have some basis in social change and that’s where we need to start addressing them rather than pushing everything onto schools.

Sharon Beder recounts how throughout much of the 20th century corporations ensured that their employees maintained a work ethic (at least in their higher-level employees) by encouraging them to build an identity based on their work with a particular employer. In the US, though considerably less so in Australia, corporations also expected their senior staff and employees to participate in civic and community groups (although this was primarily to promote the interests of the corporation within these groups) as part of their loyalty. However, they also “encouraged a total devotion by higher-level employees to their work that has gone beyond working hours. They have ensured that work is central and all-consuming to their employees” (126). The 1980s and 1990s, however, saw massive downsizing across much of the Western world. The all-consuming nature of work is still present, at least for those fortunate enough to have full-time work, but it is just as likely now to be because reduced staffing levels have led to an intensification of work and, especially in Australia, work hours are now longer, frequently non-standard, and can be changed with little or no notice (135-137). Those who don’t have full-time work or whose work is low-paid are concerned with getting as much paid work as they can in order to manage financially. When your primary concern is survival, social service and civic participation is unlikely to be high on your priority list, especially when such activities frequently need individuals to draw on their personal resources in order to participate.

In these circumstances, is it any wonder that charities and social service clubs are struggling to find volunteers and just about everyone you speak to feels time pressures and stress and is reluctant to take on any further commitments.

This has been going on for 20 or 30 years now. So over the span of a whole generation many kids have neither been socialised into, nor seen their parents participate in, the types of organisations that used to be the training grounds for civic participation and social service. Rather than being worried about ‘welfare dependency’, maybe we ought to be a little more concerned about the long-term effects of ‘work dependency’ on society.

(Just a follow-up on the post above from yesterday. Today I read a piece by Janet Wasko who maintains that around the same time as the changes that I alluded to in the youth groups, i.e. the early to mid 1980s, there were massive increases both in the entertainment media produced specifically for youth and in the targeting of advertising directly at children and youth. Are the two things connected? I don’t know, but it makes you wonder.)


Beder, Sharon. Selling the Work Ethic: From Puritan Pulpit to Corporate PR. Carlton North, Vic.: Scribe Publications, 2000.

Wasko, Janet. “The Commodification of Youth Culture.” The International Handbook of Children, Media and Culture. Ed. Kirsten Drotner and Sonia Livingstone. London: Sage, 2008. 460-474.

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