By Gerson Moreno-Riano, November 9, 2009 in Pedagogy and Teaching
Is it possible to learn through doing? To what degree is a liberal arts general education curriculum truly liberal arts if one involves students in service learning—in learning through doing? In my journey through leading the revision of the general education curriculum at my own university, I have encountered various arguments for and against this question. Some argue that service learning unduly muddles a true liberal arts curriculum with avant-garde pedagogy and a substitution of academic rigor with experiential learning. Others suggest that liberal arts education in the 21st century has to include some type of experiential learning to relate the intellect and the will in the constantly changing global landscape.
I will confess outright that I think service learning is essential for our students and that it should play some role in either general education or a student's major field of study. How much of a role is a tricky question and is better decided on a case-by-case basis. But my commitment to service learning began years ago through my reading of Plato's Republic as well as through considering Plato's constant reflections upon being and becoming.
Plato, in his educational model for the philosopher-kings and guardians, requires service learning. Not only is contemplation of the Good necessary, but so is service in politics. I have often wondered why this is the case. And I have come to the conclusion that the statesman must have a discerning sense of the constantly changing nature of the realm of the becoming—a place where the "ought" never quite "is" and the "is" is never quite the "ought." True statesmanship requires knowledge of the becoming.
This convinced me that a general education curriculum must include some component of service learning to ensure that students wrestle with the dynamic tension between the ought and the is, between the ideal and the real or the really real and that which appears to be. As my father often puts it, human beings are very complicated creatures and there is no telling how they will react to various circumstances of life. Perhaps service learning can help students not just to react but to act deliberately with knowledge, wisdom, and purpose as they reflect upon the relationship of knowing and doing.