Unrecognized Roots of Service-Learning in African American Social Thought and Action, 1890-1930

By Stevens, Charles S. | Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Unrecognized Roots of Service-Learning in African American Social Thought and Action, 1890-1930


Stevens, Charles S., Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning


African American social thought has evolved to become pragmatic, urgent, and concerned with merging social theory and action. Given the problems identified in the black American existence, this expression of social thought has focused on social justice, group empowerment, and encouraging social change to promote real democracy. Such a response is understandable since, historically, African Americans' social thought has been marginalized from acknowledged bodies of academic social thought, and expressed in action rather than print. Social protest activity, political ideology, and social movements to address issues of racial equality are some familiar articulations of this social thought.

There is a less obvious educational agenda obscured in this action-oriented and pragmatic expression of social thought. Revealed in a social welfare orientation, this agenda is embedded in a community service ideal that combines intellectual ideas and education with direct social action to improve conditions and standards in American black communities. With careful scrutiny one may locate important precursors to service-learning pedagogy and philosophy in the community service perspective that is an expression of African American social thought. These precursors, or early forms of service-learning, are often embedded in the community service perspective, sharing the social welfare orientation with its practical interest in social betterment, supportive communal systems, and education designed to promote race pride and sense of community.

Service-learning, though embodied in earlier philosophical ideas and issues, has surfaced as a relatively new concept in education. Pioneers in the field identified with the pedagogy of experiential education, including a reflection component and students making personal sacrifice (Stanton, Giles, & Cruz, 1999). The early service-learning educators operated in a value-oriented philosophy of education to promote learning through service (Chisholm, 1987), with interest in community development, community empowerment, and campus-community reciprocal learning (Stanton, Giles, & Cruz). Today, service-learning remains attached to these historical antecedents. Community service and academic excellence are joined to address social justice issues that encourage learning through experience and reflection. In the expression of African American social thought, service-learning is not a formalized educational approach or organized social movement. However, service-learning is a response in the community service perspective that, combined with other social actions, promotes community enrichment and empowerment. It is a practice and teaching philosophy seeking to partner community and academe for community betterment.

In the black American experience, there is a long-standing interest in the community service ideal. This perspective in the context of African American social thought is manifested as a racial legacy dedicated to strengthening community to deal with internal problems and promote broader social change. Responding to the urgency in African American social thought, the community service perspective is conceived as a social obligation and organizing principle for blacks actively committed to the social advancement of American black communities. The agenda in this perspective is therefore eclectic, with a social welfare emphasis to encourage self-help, collective initiatives, and education for social improvement and cultural enrichment. While the perspective does not have an officially defined agenda, the priority in its service orientation and educational activities are devoted to promoting the social, economic, and cultural empowerment of the black community. Given the action orientation and pragmatic emphasis in African American social thought, the community service perspective is an interactive process that incorporates various ideas and initiatives to engage people and community in problem solving and education. …

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