The Humanities and Citizenship: A Challenge for Service-Learning

By Handley, George B. | Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

The Humanities and Citizenship: A Challenge for Service-Learning


Handley, George B., Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning


It has not always been clear that service-learning and the humanities can work together, or even that they have common goals. Service-learning curricula at many universities consistently reveal the humanistic disciplines' playing a minor role in the spread of service-learning. Why they are apparently hesitant to embrace service is not altogether clear, but it is usually assumed that the humanities are simply less relevant to real social problems. The social sciences and other disciplines deemed more directly relevant to professional training have gained increased clout on campus by attracting off-campus financial support and because they seem to address immediate social and political concerns. Humanities, it is assumed, is the territory of abstraction and reflection, but not action. It is time to leave behind such false and debilitating assumptions and allow both service-learning and the humanities the opportunity to reach their full potential through mutual enhancement.

Humanities and Consumerism

Some argue that the humanities are under attack from the political interests of the left, while others insist that we must more carefully guard our Western heritage. Both sides of this debate seem to miss the relevance of consumerism's dramatic rise over the last several decades, accompanied by an almost orgiastic culture of materialism. A recent PBS documentary, Affluenza, explains that over 70% of Americans shop at a mall at least once a week; there are more malls than high schools in our country; on average over one year of our lives is spent watching commercials; only one third of all credit cards are paid off each month. Americans also have the largest gap between rich and poor of any industrialized nation and consume a disproportionate amount of natural resources every year, nearly 10 times more than the Chinese. Clearly our cultural trends, broadly speaking, are in opposition to the humanities, since they encourage a focus on material self-interest rather than enhance a thoughtful sense of others. If we can begin to accept the pervasive impact of this commodity-driven worldview, we must also acknowledge how consumerism inherently combats some of the highest hopes of humanities and service-learning alike.

A well-known challenge to many humanities students at universities across the country is what to do after graduation. The challenge for professors in humanistic disciplines is how to recruit students--given the recent appeal of financially attractive majors like computer science, economics, and business--and mentor them so that humanities play a meaningful role in their lives after graduation. That the humanities are under siege by a consumerist culture is also well known. In 1989, 75% of college freshmen reported their top priority in attending college was to become very well off financially. Only 41% indicated that developing a meaningful philosophy of life was a priority, down from 80% only two decades earlier (Kalata, 1996, p. 13). There is little reason to believe we have succeeded in reversing this trend in 2001. The President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, under Bill Clinton, reported in 1997 that "in the nation's colleges and universities, the humanities curriculum, which with science and mathematics should be at the heart of a college education, is shrinking while vocational and pre-professional courses are increasing" (p. 10). The report also notes: "Although America's universities provide the overwhelming majority of support for research and teaching in the humanities, the humanities are losing ground in the academy and find few external sources of funding" (p. 14). Although other signs such as the growth of public humanities programs indicate interest in the humanities has increased in recent decades, consumeristic values threaten the humanities' independence from materialism.

The response of many professors and administrators frequently only makes the problem worse. …

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