A Paradigm Shift in International Service-Learning: The Imperative for Reciprocal Learning
1. Introduction: Critiquing International Service-Learning
- The belief that student reflection on their experience is sufficient both to evaluate community impact and promote learning;
- The assumption that service always has positive results; and
- The concept of service itself.
“I am here to suggest that you voluntarily renounce exercising the power which being an American gives you. I am here to entreat you to freely, consciously and humbly give up the legal right you have to impose your benevolence on Mexico. I am here to challenge you to recognize you inability, your powerlessness and your incapacity to do the ‘good’ which you intended to do… Come to look, come to climb our mountains…Come to study. But do not come to help”.
2. The Limitations of Student Experience and Reflection
2.1. Experience and Reflection Alone Are Not Enough
2.2. Cross-Cultural Understanding Is Not a Given
“blurs the distinction between education abroad and educational tourism. There is certainly a place for educational tourism, but to give academic credit for these activities seems to me to weaken the credibility of our field”.
3. “Bad Service” and Its Community Impacts
3.1. Community Impact Is Broad
- Good destination selection;
- Real control by local people;
- Long-term relationships with host communities;
- Substantive preparation and processing with students; and
- A reduction in the number of ISL students and programs
3.2. Service Can Be Damaging
3.3. Possible Ways to Improve Service
4. The Problem with Service Itself
4.1. Insights from Postcolonial Theory
“[W]ith service-learning, not knowing enough can actually be dangerous to those we encounter. Our students, as service-learners, need to know as much as can be provided about the life-ways of the places they are to serve because one can make the mistake of helping in ways that are culturally inappropriate. This helps to lessen the possibility of unintended offense, or falling prey to what the Zapatistas call the Cinderella Syndrome—a subtle attitude of deprecating charity; providing cast-offs to the poor relation”.
4.2. The Problem with “Helping”
“[Appealing] to privileged people’s sense of decency and fairness, their good will toward those less fortunate than themselves…touches many people and sometimes moves them to action, but as a strategy for long-term change it fails…The do-a-good-deed approach…rests on a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’—the ‘us’ who help and the less fortunate ‘them’ who get helped….[T]he act of helping—of being able to help—can reaffirm the social distance between the two groups and heighten everyone’s awareness of it. Thus, every such act of giving to others is always a statement, intended or not, of one group’s ability to give and the other’s inability to get along without it. And in a society that counts independence, autonomy, and self-sufficiency among its highest cultural values, it’s impossible to avoid the negative judgments attached to those on the receiving end and the status-enhancing judgments conferred on those who give”.
“Even carefully constructed guidelines for practice can do damage if they are not placed in the context of social realities, namely different and competing interests as well as outright conflict, based on, for example, class, race, gender, and even nationality…[These realities] make difficult the application of concepts like ‘reciprocal learning.’… [I]n the context of … the historical dominance of one … group over another, it is possible that ‘service,’ in and of itself, can have racist or sexist outcomes despite good intentions….I think it is possible to empower learners (through) service learning and not promote the common good (by reinforcing a sense of inferiority among those ‘served’ or a false sense of power among those who ‘serve’). It is possible to use experience as an integral part of education and simply duplicate the realities we wish to change”.
4.3. The Problem with “Experts” and “Gratitude”
5. Reciprocal Learning
“To these good, sincere people who sent us this rose colored, spike-heeled little shoe, imported, size 6 ½, without its mate, thinking that, as poor as we are, we will accept any little thing, charity and alms, how do we say to these good people, that no, we no longer wish to live in shame in Mexico?”.(quoted in )
“Imagine the desperation of a community that needs drinking water and they are saddled with a library, those that need a school for the children to be given a course in herb use… we have elected for our communities…to prove that we are not seeking “assistance-ism” and to demonstrate… that it is possible to govern and to govern ourselves”.(quoted in )
6. Discussion: What to Do?
- Do not go to places that are particularly vulnerable to negative environmental or social impacts;
- Widen the understanding of community impacts beyond the host agency;
- Dispense with the concept of service;
- Work to develop helpful interactions with communities.
7. Conclusions: Building Something New: Time for a Paradigm Shift to Reciprocal Learning
“[R]eciprocal learning [when partners-in-learning are not equal in power and resources] may be more possible when it is not tied to a notion of service…[T]he common good might be better served in certain situations if we emphasized learning as the primary goal and ‘service’… as not involved at all”.
Institutional Review Board Statement
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Conflicts of Interest
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Gregory, L.; Schroeder, K.; Wood, C. A Paradigm Shift in International Service-Learning: The Imperative for Reciprocal Learning. Sustainability 2021, 13, 4473. https://doi.org/10.3390/su13084473
Gregory L, Schroeder K, Wood C. A Paradigm Shift in International Service-Learning: The Imperative for Reciprocal Learning. Sustainability. 2021; 13(8):4473. https://doi.org/10.3390/su13084473Chicago/Turabian Style
Gregory, Lynn, Kathleen Schroeder, and Cynthia Wood. 2021. "A Paradigm Shift in International Service-Learning: The Imperative for Reciprocal Learning" Sustainability 13, no. 8: 4473. https://doi.org/10.3390/su13084473