Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

The Study of Service-Learning as a Moral Matter

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

The Study of Service-Learning as a Moral Matter

Article excerpt


If moral development is a hoped for consequence of engagement in service-learning, any adequate construction and/or evaluation of service-learning programs requires a complete and comprehensive understanding of the moral situation. The Four Component Model (FCM) of Morality provides a fitting corrective to the historic overemphasis on moral reasoning and offers a comprehensive theoretical framework for understanding the motivations and effects of service-learning participation.


There is a chorus of voices in contemporary culture decrying humanity's moral decline (Bork, 1996; Bouza, 1996; Fukuyama, 1999; Green, 1994). The emergence of terrorism in the United States and in Europe, and the horrors perpetrated on both sides of the USIraq war seem only to support their darkest assessments. Most major newspapers and news magazines, political pundits, and social analysts in the United States have heralded, in ever more ominous tones, our society's seemingly inevitable slide into moral relativism. Over a decade ago, a poll indicated that 76% of adults believed that "the United States is in moral and spiritual decline" (Fineman, 1994). While the pessimist might conclude that the intervening years have done little to ease such concern, there is reason for hope. As concerns about the nation's moral decline have increased over the past two decades, there has been a concurrent rise throughout every age group in participation in volunteer and service activities throughout the United States.

According to Campus Compact (2001), service-learning, a particular alternative on the spectrum of service related opportunities, has spread rapidly throughout communities, and academic settings of every level from elementary to post-secondary institutions. The growth is especially evident in secondary and post-secondary institutions (Billig & Waterman, 2003; Waterman, 1997). Whether prompted by a national increase in altruism, or a simple attempt to enhance one's college or employment application, it is clear that there has been a significant increase in participation in service-learning activity among these groups (Campus Compact). According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) there were more than an estimated 13 million students involved in service and service-learning activities during the 2000-2001. Additionally, between 1984 and 1997, K-12 participation in service-learning grew from fewer than one million to 12.6 million students, with the proportion of high school students involved in service-learning growing from 2% to 25% during the same span (Fiske, 2001).

Secondary and post-secondary institutions, for their part, are clearly assuming the responsibility of educating students beyond the classroom. Collegiate participation has been found to enhance moral reasoning even after controlling for age and entering level of moral judgment (King & Mayhew, 2002; Rogers, 2002). Faith-based liberal arts institutions tend to focus on making "their students' moral and civic engagement a high priority and have created a wealth of curricular and extracurricular programs to stimulate and support that development" (Colby, Ehrlich, Beaumont, & Stephens, 2003, p. 23). In an examination of such activities, Astin (1984) found that those students who limit their involvement solely to traditional curricular pursuits do not show the same gains as students who are involved in a broader range of activities. The question remains: In what ways might these service-learning opportunities stem the seeming tide of societal moral decline? Most scholars who study the impact of the college experience on students agree that experiences outside the classroom can enhance important and valued attributes (Astin, 1977, 1993; Bowen, 1977; Chickering, 1993; McNeel, 1994; Pascarelli & Terrenzini, 2005).

Might this growing involvement in service-learning activities, during the formative years of high school and undergraduate studies, transform the citizenry in such a way as to stem society's seemingly inevitable moral decline? …

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