Reading Week spent in the “real world”

As Reading Week approaches, many universities are putting the final touches on their plans to send students into the “real world” to do Community Service Learning projects (sometimes called Alternative Spring Break projects). According to information gleaned from the Internet, at least ten Canadian universities will be supporting teams of students to do projects related to social issues such as income inequality and homelessness as well as sustainability issues such as food security. Students from St Francis Xavier, Carleton, University of Ottawa, McMaster, Western, University of Regina, University of Saskatchewan, University of Alberta, UBC Okanagan, and UBC Vancouver will be doing projects locally, nationally, or internationally.

Knowing how powerful these hands-on, immersive experiences can be, I am excited for the students who will have the good fortune to take part in these projects. And I am aware that many of these students are likely to come up against some uncomfortable truths.

Several years ago, along with more than a thousand UBC students, I heard David Orr, a professor, environmental activist, and author, give a speech about the failings of post-secondary education.  Orr made a striking observation. He pointed out that most of the problems facing the planet are not the work of ignorant people but are the result of work done by people with university degrees. Orr was talking about environmental issues, but I think the same point can be made about social issues. That is, many of the seemingly intractable social problems in the developed world are the result of social policies gone awry—policies developed by experts, professionals, and civil servants educated in universities.

Orr believes that higher education is founded on and perpetuates several dangerous disconnections: between the rational, analytical mind and other mental or emotional capacities; between actions and their consequences; between self and object or other; and between the knowledge of separate disciplines and holistic, contextualized understanding. Orr contends that these disconnections have led to a lack of appreciation for the scope of our ignorance, the complexity of natural (and I would add social) phenomena, and the importance of ethical prudence.

Orr asserts that the remedy is not simply more education, but education of a certain kind. For example, students need to learn to take responsibility for how knowledge is applied and to pay attention to the full range of a given action’s outcomes. Orr argues that the process of learning is as important as the content.

Reading Week Community Service Learning (CSL) projects are an example of an approach to education that rectifies some of the problems Orr identifies. CSL exposes students to new people and complex issues in a context where they are encouraged to engage as global citizens, as fellow humans caught in the same web of interdependence as the people they are working with. CSL tries to get students thinking critically and creatively about the issues they are engaging with, to question received wisdom and the status quo. It is different from other types of experiential learning, such as practica, internships or co-ops, where students are learning professional skills and attitudes under the tutelage of an experienced professional.

Students doing Reading Week projects often become aware for the first time of the complexity of social and environmental issues and the limitations of scientific rationality and its associated professions’ attempts to resolve these issues. Students may encounter community people who voice perspectives they have never heard before. And these encounters can cause discomfort. For example, students doing CSL in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside are often shocked to hear local residents rail against the “poverty pimps”—the professionals whose livelihoods are perceived as depending on the perpetuation of their clients’ misery. Realizing that “disadvantaged” people are not necessarily unequivocally grateful for the services they receive can be deeply distressing, especially for students who are contemplating careers in the helping professions.

As another example, there is a significant degree of consensus among people who are knowledgeable about the Downtown Eastside that its complex problems reflect the unintended consequences of social policies such as the de-institutionalization of people with mental illnesses without adequate community supports, cuts to government funding for social housing, and the war on drugs. This view does not suggest that problems such as mental illness or addiction are originally caused by professionals and policy-makers, but it does point out that, despite the best of intentions, the efforts of experts often exacerbate social problems rather than resolving them. It can be deeply distressing for students to realize that the theories they have been studying (e.g., about policy-making) and the underlying assumptions about the inviolability of expert knowledge do not match what they are seeing and hearing.

Ideally, the reflective component of the CSL model supports students as they process their reactions to people, ideas, or events they find unsettling. Through discussing the issues with community people, other students, and university faculty and staff, and through other reflective approaches such as journal writing, students can gain insights and understandings they would otherwise not be challenged to discover.

CSL projects that immerse students in social and environmental issues provide important opportunities for tough questions to be examined. Having heard countless students say their CSL experiences have transformed their world views, I am hopeful that when these students become civil servants, politicians, teachers, social workers, physicians, nurses, lawyers and so on, they will remember the people they met and the experiences they had doing CSL. I hope these alumni will inhabit their professional roles in new ways. For example, perhaps they will insist on including recipients of services and professionals from a variety of disciplines in discussions of proposed new policies or programs so that potential unintended negative consequences can be avoided. Perhaps such alumni will insist that any new initiative include a rigorous plan for monitoring its effects as well as commitments to adjust course when necessary. Perhaps they will make decisions, both large and small, knowing that there is no hard and fast line that separates them from the other beings, human and otherwise, that will be affected by their decisions. Perhaps students and alumni with experience doing CSL will embody a new answer to the question David Orr asks: What is education for?

To read my other blog posts on community-university engagement, go to Taking the Plunge.

For more on Reading Week CSL projects, go to Stabilizing the Reading Week model.