Service-Learning in Philosophy Courses
“Moral problems, like global and local food insecurity, aren’t just abstract problems; they are practical problems with practical solutions. It’s important not just to present students with the problems, but also to empower them with real-world actions they can perform to help alleviate these problems.”
That’s Mylan Engel, professor of philosophy at Northern Illinois University, in an interview at Engaged Philosophy (previously).
Professor Engel, who teaches courses in, among other things, animal ethics, environmental ethics, and philosophy of food, makes use of service-learning in his instruction. He says:
The students in my “Philosophy of Food” course are expected to complete at least 21 hours of community-engaged service during the course of the semester. Service activities include:
• Volunteering at Feed My Starving Children
• Planting seeds in NIU’s greenhouse
• Working in NIU’s Communiversity Garden
• Preparing and sharing a vegan dish at the end-of-the-semester Sustainable Supper
In addition to the above activities, which we all perform together as a class, students are expected to identify a food-related issue/problem they are passionate about and spend at least 5 hours working on a project designed to address that problem.
Students “gain a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the practical significance of philosophy. They also gain a sense of empowerment” from the work, Professor Engel says.
In this brief video, he and his students talk about the benefits of this kind of coursework:
You can learn more about the service-learning projects and lessons Professor Engel uses in the full interview.
The Engaged Philosophy website is a useful resource for those interested in bringing service learning and civic engagement into their courses, with information about various service learning projects, sample syllabi, other interviews, and more.
Do you make use of service-learning, civic engagement, or other hands-on projects in your philosophy courses? Let us know about them. Are you trying to figure out how to make use of these teaching tools for a particular philosophical subject? Let’s hear about it. Discussion welcome.
A Northeastern University I teach a “Philosophy for Children” course where my students and I teach local elementary school kids philosophy through kids books (very much inspired by Thomas Wartenberg’s approach).
First iteration of the course was interrupted by Covid but (tentatively) planning/hoping to teach it this coming Fall.Report
This is a nice initiative, but I worry that it blurs the boundary between theory and practice. Every minute working in the soup kitchen, for example, is a minute not spent studying Mill and Kant. Sure, the all-thing-considered value of the soup kitchen might outweigh the purely intellectual value of intense study, however, let’s not conflate whether the soup kitchen *is* the studying.Report
It may be that working in a soup kitchen is not studying itself, but I take it that (part of) the point is that working in the soup kitchen can improve the quality of the students’s studying. To paraphrase Kipling and C.L.R. James, what can they know of philosophy, who only philosophy know?Report
SCM, you say “but I take it that (part of) the point is that working in the soup kitchen can improve the quality of the students’s studying.” How so? I mean. To use an analogy: in the Karate Kid, the kid didn’t understand why Mr. Miagi was making him paint the fence. And then it turned out that the brush strokes were similar to tai-kwon-do — and so “aha, painting the fence was part of the study of tai-kwon-do.” But I’m not quite seeing it in the soup kitchen case. Putting soup in the bowl might very well be practice for when you have to take the visiting speaker out for dinner … but it doesn’t teach them Kant and Mill. Report
This isn’t really that hard. They can study Kant and Mill as much as they like. But they may not have a very deep appreciation for ethics if they don’t directly experience contexts that depart from their normal life.Report
Harald what is your definition of ‘studying’?Report
I am glad you asked, Cathy. My definition of studying is a sober, close, careful, reading of the text. This has been the same definition of studying from Ancient Greece to the present day.Report
Inspiring work, Mylan!
I’m teaching Philosophy of Education this semester at Notre Dame. As part of the class my students are volunteering at a local community learning center.Report
A concern I have with this sort of component of a course (and it’s a concern, not a decisive reason not to do it) is that it’s probably quite hard to do it without requiring students to adopt some substantive conclusions about the subject matter of the course. Presumably it wouldn’t be okay to do a course on the ethics of abortion where students were required to spend 5 hours volunteering at an abortion clinic, or indeed 5 hours protesting outside an abortion clinic. I can see that you could have a more generalized ‘spend 5 hours volunteering for some cause you regard as good’, but you might have to work quite hard to reassure students that they weren’t going to be penalized for having particular views of what counts as a good cause.
(I don’t know to what extent Professor Engel’s service requirement accommodates students who radically disagree with his substantive views about food ethics; quite possibly they’re fully accommodated. This isn’t a particular comment on his course.)Report
As someone who has previously taken multiple graduate seminars with Dr. Engel, I can attest to his openness to being challenged and disagreed with. In my experience, his evaluation has never reflected his position on the content, but the strength of arguments, clarity of writing, etc. Of course, you note that your point is not a particular comment on Engel’s course(s).
I do, however, think your concern stands: for courses that incorporate service components, students may fundamentally disagree with the positions being advocated by the course or the professor. To that point, I am glad that most of my past philosophy courses have not been structured in this way. But for the few that have, the experience of connecting philosophical ideas to practice was both formative and fulfilling. I suppose professors considering this course structure should, among other things, carefully consider the pros and cons of service learning components for the types of students in their program.Report
Good to know, and as I say, I’d no reason to think otherwise (it’s a more general concern).Report
Solution: only service learning courses that can be given a public reason justification are admissible!Report
I do something like this:
FWIW, I appreciated that post a lot when it first went up and have started doing a similar project. Thanks for taking the time to write it up and share it with the profession.Report
Cornell has just launched a moral psychology minor — so far as I know, the first moral psychology minor (link below).
The minor’s engaged learning component is concentrated in a dedicated “capstone” course, which may address some of David’s concerns.
It’s a great course (I saw a presentation Mylan did on it a few years back). If you’re worried about students being made to do things that go against their principles, I presume that the requirements are advertised up front, so students whose principles preclude them from helping to alleviate food insecurity, help plants to grow, or cook vegan meals (oh, the horror!) can opt for different classes. Similarly, students whose principles preclude them from even considering arguments for or against the existence of a supernatural deity can choose not to take a philosophy of religion class, and students whose principles preclude them from being exposed to Darwinian theories of evolution can choose not to take an evolutionary biology class. As to the worry that time spent doing practical things, like packing meals for underprivileged people or planting seeds for plants to grow, is time not spent studying theory, that’s true. But so what? It’s not as if this class doesn’t also have plenty of time spent studying theory. Unless you think that every minute of every day should be spent studying theory, this “worry” seems totally irrelevant.Report
How far do you extend that? To borrow my earlier example, would it be okay for my class to require students to organize an anti-abortion protest, provided that the course prospectus makes clear that’s part of the requirements? Or, in your philosophy of religion example, is it okay if the class is required to take Holy Communion?Report
Of course there are going to be substantive assumptions of value involved in the particular choice of engaged-learning. There are substantive assumptions of value involved in particular choices of theoretical learning. One professor teaches philosophy of religion using only texts in the Christian catholic tradition. One only teaches it from Buddhist traditions. The Thomist thinks its a complete disservice to what philosophy of religion ought to be that they’re talking about this or that conception of nirvana rather than the rationality of faith or certain a priori arguments for the existence of God. The students in one college only does service-learning based on Evangelical conceptions of the good. We argue about whether that course is better than the soup-kitchen couse on blogs. Isn’t that what have discretionary freedom over courses is about, and what makes US higher education great?Report
However, while a faculty member’s philosophical or religious stance will inevitably influence what gets taught in a traditional class, students still aren’t (or shouldn’t be) required to endorse that stance or act against their own stance to pass the class. They may have to consider arguments that come out of the Catholic tradition or even demonstrate an understanding of Catholicism, but they don’t have to claim to be Catholic or act in ways contrary to their faith (or lack thereof). A service learning class that required students to act in support of a controversial cause that they may in fact oppose would be quite different (at least at a state school). I’m not saying that Mylan Engel’s course has this issue, and I’m not sure how many actual philosophy service learning classes do, but I can see the problem in principle. When I was chair a colleague was thinking about such a class and I pointed out that unless they broadened the range of activities that students could engage in they might run into this problem.Report
I’m not seeing this as a matter of defensible principle (as opposed to whatever half-baked state law may be in force) Dale. What if a student’s own stance forbids them from considering certain arguments? I’m sure we both agree that would be a very silly stance to have, but that’s our substantive judgment about the stance itself. I also think if a student has a stance against helping to feed the needy or plant food, that would be a very silly stance. There is simply no content-neutral principle that can reasonably forbid requiring practical activities but not intellectual activities.Report
Sure, I think that there are some stances a student could have that a state university just doesn’t have to accommodate. If your religion precludes you from learning about viewpoints other than its own, then you just aren’t going to get a degree from a state school. But I think that can be true and yet it can also be true that there are a range of issues that universities should treat as matters of legitimate controversy and that getting credit in a class shouldn’t require taking a particular side in the controversy. That includes being required to affirm that a certain view is correct or doing practical work to promote one side. So for example, a service learning class in political science that gives students credit for working on a political campaign seems okay—but not if it requires working for a particular politician or a particular party. When it comes to working with a community group, say, there are some groups that are anodyne enough that having the opportunity tied to that specific group might be fine. There are others where that’s probably not true. If you’re going to give students ethics credit for working with a group that wants to restrict gun ownership, for instance, you probably have to offer the same credit for doing comparable work for the NRA.Report
I would hope that an instructor, service learning or ordinary learning, has the wisdom to grant exceptions to students who object to doing readings or assignments on moral, religious, or other grounds, or not to grant such exceptions, based on their expert pedagogical judgment. If they make a wrong call, well, we all fuck up in our jobs sometimes right?Report
Some of my state legislators are considering solving this problem preemptively by making it illegal for public schools to include a service learning component that is in any way affiliated with any group that does lobbying or takes any political stance. This would wipe out every service learning project my kids have ever been involved in in public school, as well as many of the ones at my institution, and they are about as anodyne and non-controversial as you please – or more to the point, engaging in those activities is probably less provocative than engaging intellectually with some of the texts you’ll have to read for the class. I mentioned this just to note that this is not an abstract discussion, but occurs in a context where government control over the options is sought by at least some elected officials. I have never known of a service learning course where either the course or a component within it was required of a student and no other options existed for fulfilling the same credits.Report
If the course prospectus makes it clear that organizing a protest or taking communion is one of the requirements, I think that would be fine, as far as the objection that concerns making students do things against their principles goes. The only problem I can see is if this class is required for the student to fulfill their major requirements. It would also be unfortunate, if the only philosophy of religion class available had that requirement, even if philosophy of religion were not required for the major. I find it somewhat amusing that some of the people who will argue (correctly) for professors’ wide discretion in assigning material for students to study will balk at the idea of assigning other activities for the students to engage in. It’s as if there’s an assumption that students’ principles concerning permissible ways of engaging in practical activity are different in kind, and worthy of a different kind of deference, from their principles concerning permissible ways of engaging in intellectual activity. Which is, of course, absurd.Report
Why is it absurd?Report
A course offered by a state university in the US that required students to take communion would fail a legal challenge. Just like mandatory prayers.Report
Glad to see the success others have had with these important courses. I’ve had a slightly different experience that I wonder whether or not it happens frequently.
We developed a service-learning course at UNO where we partnered with the local jail to teach reentering people basic computer and job skills. The class our students were taking was focused on ethics and the criminal justice system, and they were the ones teaching the computer and job skills to folks about to be released. (It was all well done–they received proper training, we worked closely with the staff at the jail, etc.)
Anyway, my colleagues declared that what we were doing was “not philosophy” and refused to add the course to the catalogue or list it again as a special topics. Have any of you had similar problems with colleagues telling you that service or experiential learning courses are not philosophy and shouldn’t be offered?Report
Wow I’m sorry happened Chris. I don’t know how curricular governance works at your institution. Here, new courses have to go through a curricular committee for approval. So in principle, a faculty member can appeal their own department’s reservations about a course directly to such a committee. Short of that, there are ways of appealing to the Dean when particular faculty feel strongly about course content that is at odds with their department. We haven’t ever had this problem in philosophy but I know of other departments where this happens. In the end, there is always an interdisciplinary program that would be happy to have something like this if departments don’t cooperate.Report
Interesting. So what about this: I could teach a course about the importance of free inquiry and of toleration for dissent, and have the following service learning component: all students must publicly defend *two* people who are attacked for their (alleged) positions or comments on some hot-button issue dear to their hearts — one on each side of the issue. The students then have to submit explanations of what they did (and evidence that they in fact did it), and reflect on various difficulties they will have encountered in persuading people to be more open-minded.
In this case, the service work would not just be the following of some principle for which one has seen philosophical arguments: it would also require students to use their skills directly in arguing for the permissibility of someone’s holding and expressing certain views, and in responding to those who object.
Moreover, this work is clearly non-partisan (someone deeply invested in trans issues would have to argue against someone’s being cancelled for championing trans rights, and also against someone’s being cancelled for criticizing some tenet of held by trans advocates), and I think it should be clear that allowing for greater intellectual tolerance is a genuine social good. We are, after all, philosophers trying to promote the philosophical spirit. Moreover, this service learning project would promote intellectual courage, which, I think it should be agreed, is in relatively short supply in these intellectually conforming times.
In spite of these virtues of this proposed project, I have little doubt that others would object to it. They might say, for instance, that this entire service learning component is based on a Millian or Ira-Glasser-style civil libertarian position that some philosophers reject. But I can acknowledge that this is true, in just the way that some philosophers reject the moral superiority of veganism or the existence of a duty to help the needy, and say that such disagreement doesn’t raise a problem for my proposed service learning component any more than the existence of other disagreement raises a problem for projects that require feeding the homeless or learning to cook vegan meals.
Does that suffice? Or do the worries persist?Report
Justin, this seems like a very thoughtful and valuable exercise, but I’m not sure if it would count towards what many universities are identifying as “experiential learning.” That’s what seems to make philosophy somewhat odd here because by doing philosophy *in the classroom* or *through assignments* that *is* experiential learning, at least in philosophy.
In the case of our criminal justice ethics class, we thought it was important for the students to be able to connect with the people who are sitting in our jails right now. My colleagues were right in that teaching these individuals computer skills or jobs skills is distinctly not philosophy, but my position was (and still is) that doing philosophy well means having as much relevant empirical knowledge as possible that is relevant to the issue being discussed. So our “experiential learning” component allowed them to learn something — albeit not learning philosophy directly — through their non-philosophy interaction with the people in the jail. (But, again, I can see the point my colleagues were making about those hours not being philosophy.)
But if what we were doing here in New Orleans is not the kind of experiential learning we’re going to support in philosophy departments, it’s not entirely clear to me how philosophy can contribute to experiential learning in ways that our universities are going to count. What you’re suggesting, quite clearly, is experiential learning, but I imagine those types of exercises are already being done in many philosophy classes, and it is certainly not what people think of when they think of experiential learning.
One solution is that we can engage in a re-education project around what experiential learning is and why some disciplines, by their very nature, are doing experiential learning already. (That is, of course, why the sciences have lab classes.) But I’m not confident that project is likely to be successful, especially in fields like philosophy. Beyond that, we’re left doing the type of thing that I was doing in New Orleans and that others have suggested on here, but we’re likely to run into the objections that these projects are explicitly “not philosophy.”Report
Thanks, Chris. But I don’t yet see the parallel.
You say that “some disciplines, by their very nature, are doing experiential learning already. (That is, of course, why the sciences have lab classes.)”
Students in lab classes go beyond reading or hearing about the scientific facts and theories. They take part in the scientific work that generates those facts and theories. Rather than learning the results of the work of scientists, they themselves become scientists.
But I don’t yet see how teaching computing and job skills to prisoners helps ethics students experience what it’s like to work as a philosopher by generating or assessing philosophical theories or figuring out what they entail.Report
Justin, that wasn’t the parallel I was drawing connections between. I was drawing a parallel between a chemistry lab and your example of what could be done in a philosophy class. I was then suggesting that both of these things should count as experiential learning, but would not count at the vast majority of colleges and universities given how “experiential learning” is defined.
So, that puts us in philosophy in a weird position, especially at schools that are trying to emphasize experiential learning. Do we try to convince the relevant administrators that what many faculty members are doing in philosophy should count as experiential learning? I don’t think that’s a winning strategy.
If not, then the question is a substantive one about whether these things that normally are considered to be service learning and “not philosophy,” and then a second question as to whether or not these “not philosophy” things can enhance a philosophy class in substantive and important ways.
In my specific example, I’m very sympathetic to the claim that teaching computing and job skills isn’t philosophy (since it’s not). But I’m also sympathetic to the position that it’s important for people to have certain experiences if they’re going to do philosophy well, especially when they’re thinking about difficult issues in social or political philosophy. In our case, we thought it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to think carefully about ethical issues related to the criminal justice system without having an opportunity to interact meaningfully with folks in our jails. This is a piece that most people working in criminal justice issues on the theoretical side simply don’t have.Report
Ah, I see! Thanks.
But then I think the question of bias becomes more important. Those who invest time working personally with prisoners who struggle to rehabilitate themselves will presumably come to see the prisoners more sympathetically. But those who instead spend time working with the victims of crimes as they try to put their lives together would presumably come to hold quite different sympathies, especially if their lives were seriously derailed by a convicted criminal on parole, and so on.Report
Something similar is true of “undergraduate research.” It’s easy to conclude that not many philosophy departments are participating in undergraduate research. On reflection, though, I think that they all are, and heavily so. If students are writing papers, well, that’s what research looks like in philosophy. And they always have the chance of hitting upon something novel that makes an interesting contribution.Report
That seems right to me, but part of our problem is that, at many universities, the only “research” that counts is the type that brings in dollars that the university can deduct overhead expenses from.Report
I’m open to the idea that such service deepens students’ understanding of the importance of philosophy, or of the philosophical ideas themselves (I get asked to add it to my courses every year) – but is there any ed data that backs this up?
I think there’s lots of service learning that does actually enhance the learning – like having the students teach others. But that is hard to do with intro level philosophy students, (and maybe a bit irresponsible? Are they going to talk to middle-schoolers about the problem of evil?)
In this case, what is learned? Not that “People who don’t have access to healthy food should have access to healthy food, and we should do something about that.” I mean, how much philosophy do you need to arrive at that claim? (Hopefully, none).
I’m all for service requirements for college high school students – even as part of a course. Volunteerism is good (even when it’s not fully voluntary). Not sure about the “learning” bit, as it relates to philosophy.Report
I imagine this sort of courses would have been a challenge for me because I am miserable at anything that requires practical skills (which was why I went for the most armchairing discipline). Not an objection to it — maybe it is as justified as requiring all physics students to do experiments…Report