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Is Service-Learning a Disservice to Philosophy?

The anti-theoretical tone of the service-learning movement, implicit even in the rhetoric of moderates, makes this worry reasonable.

· 11 min read
Is Service-Learning a Disservice to Philosophy?

Karl Marx once groused that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” He might have been pleased to learn that some philosophers now teach, and advocate for, courses that contain significant activist elements. Pedagogy that includes service projects outside the classroom are often denominated “service-learning.” One variation currently being piloted, “Engaged Philosophy,” gives students autonomy over planning, implementing, and writing about a service project of their choice.1 The Engaged Philosophy website showcases successful projects. For example:

  • Vanessa made crafts and sold them to raise money for NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She also collected scarves for the homeless and tied them around trees in downtown Minneapolis.
  • Two students worked with local Starbucks managers to get their coffee shops to compost and have clearer recycling signs.
  • Two students brought dogs from a local shelter, Indigo Rescue, to campus during midterms to help students relieve stress. They also collected money for the shelter and raised awareness about dog adoption.

Although service-learning has yet to become mainstream within academic philosophy, it has, significant footholds in other disciplines. The conservative group National Association of Scholars alleges in a recent report that what they call the “New Civics”—which emphasizes service-learning, but is effectively training for left-wing activists—has displaced traditional civics education in some universities. Some philosophers want to see the philosophy curriculum similarly overhauled in the direction of ‘service.’ Philosopher Eugene J. Valentine speculates (optimistically) about what his field, so transformed, might look like:

In a philosophy of sport course, our students might serve injured athletes or athletes with special needs. In a feminist philosophy course, our students might serve residents of a domestic violence shelter. In an environmental philosophy course, our students might serve a group of endangered animals or a polluted stream. In a philosophy of law course, our students might serve clients of a legal services program. In an existentialism course, our students might serve persons who are physically disabled or homeless, whereas in a course on Marxism, our students might serve both wealthy residents of nursing homes and poor residents of nursing homes.2

Should this be the future of philosophy? The answer depends on what we think ‘philosophy’ is. Valentine claims that the job of philosophers is to help their students acquire “wisdom,” by which he means “the intelligence to live well.”3 But many subjects other than philosophy help students live well (e.g., accounting). Not all who live well are good philosophers and not all who live poorly are poor philosophers; hence philosophy is not “the intelligence to live well.” Philosophy, as I understand it, is theoretical—roughly, the use of reason to investigate fundamental questions that cannot be settled empirically: Does God exist? What do we know? What is morally right?, and so on.

Service-learning enthusiasts in philosophy don’t disclaim theoretical learning, nor do they typically call for activism to be injected into nearly every philosophy course. Still they use language that subtly disparages purely intellectual pursuits. They speak, for example, of the need to bring philosophy into ‘real life’ and ‘the real world’ as if it currently takes place elsewhere.4 Consider again the term ‘Engaged Philosophy.’ Presumably, what makes Engaged Philosophy engaged are the students’ service projects. If so, then the implication is that philosophy classes without service projects are disengaged, or at least less fully engaged than those that have them. Engagement with ideas seemingly doesn’t count as genuine engagement.

In the introductory essay for their anthology, Experiential Learning in Philosophy, philosophers Julinna Oxley and Ramona Ilea (one of the main proponents of Engaged Philosophy) reject the “narrow view of what philosophy is that developed in the twentieth century” and align themselves with the view that “philosophy ought not to be exclusively abstract and otherworldly.”5 But what analytic philosopher thinks philosophy must be “otherworldly”? Is it otherworldly to investigate abstract questions? Oxley and Ilea say that they approve of the example of “Socrates in the agora.” What Socrates did in the agora, however, was interrogate abstract concepts using what we now regard as traditional methods. Other philosophers have warned against merging theory and practice. C.S. Peirce writes:

It is notoriously true that into whatever you do not put your whole heart and soul, in that you will not have much success. Now the two masters, theory and practice, you cannot [both] serve. That perfect balance of attention which is required for observing the system of things is utterly lost if human desires intervene, and all the more so the higher and holier those desires may be.[6]

When asked to lecture on “Topics of Vital Importance” instead of those topics he thought were philosophically most important, Peirce was reluctant. Ultimately, though, the inquirer who devotes himself into the search for truth succeeds in serving both masters. Open-minded inquiry is vitally important. This situation is structurally similar to the so-called paradox of hedonism (really a paradox of egoism): if you want to be happy, don’t try to make yourself happy; instead, serve other people. Likewise, I take Peirce to be saying that the best way for a scientist or philosopher to make the world better in that capacity isn’t to aim to make the world better, but to understand it. Peirce writes:

The point of view of utility is a narrow point of view. How much more we should know about chemistry today if the most practically important bodies [I assume has gold in mind, an obsessive focus of alchemy] had not received excessive attention; and how much less we should know, if the rare elements and the compounds which only exist at low temperatures had received only the share of attention to which their utility entitled them.7

Physicist Mark P. Mills arrives at a similar conclusion. In his essay for The New Atlantis, “Making Technological Miracles,” Mills observes that scientists compromise between the noble quest for truth and the practical quest for utility (so that the money men will fund them). However, “While it is usually obvious what questions are utility-driven or curiosity-driven, it is not obvious, as history shows, which may lead to foundational discoveries, producing not just utility but ‘miracles’” such as the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA. In order to maximize long-run utility, scientists must be allowed to trust in “the serendipity of curiosity-driven inquiry.”

Does this apply to disciplines outside of the sciences? There’s room for doubt. When investor Bill Miller donated 75 million dollars to the Johns Hopkins University philosophy department—the largest ever donation to a single philosophy department—philosopher Michael Huemer criticized him for not donating the money to a more effective cause (assuming that his goal, in giving to charity, was to do as much good as possible). According to the data at, that sum of money, donated to a highly efficient charity, could have saved the lives of 25,000 extremely poor people. Hiring nine new philosophers won’t in all likelihood yield any comparable benefit.

Here’s the rub: Huemer’s reasoning extends to every dollar invested into the humanities or pure mathematics, each and every one of which would, by the same logic, be (morally) better spent elsewhere. Imagine that it were possible to press a button that would reallocate all of this money to a GiveWell charity. In addition, all of the resources private individuals spend investigating these fields would be similarly redirected. Should a utilitarian like Peter Singer press this button? Doubtless, this would produce a short-term utility spike. But in the long term, I doubt that the bargain would be a good one even on utilitarian terms.

If the reallocation were constant—so we’d never reinvest money into these fields—then pressing the button would amount to a cultural cashing-out. Whichever society did this would be intellectually diminished and its members might be less willing and able to come to the aid of others on a continuing basis. With no moral philosophers like Peter Singer around to persuade them of their duty to donate, people might forget why they are going through such trouble. Ultimately, then, some resources ought to be devoted to “curiosity-driven inquiry” in these fields—though it’s hard to say precisely how much.

If we grant that philosophers have a legitimate role investigating purely theoretical questions, then they have reason to keep utility-based justifications for what they do, and especially politics, an arm’s length from their research. Philosopher Bas van der Vossen has argued that philosophers, at least those interested in political questions, have a prima facie duty to abstain from political activity.8 Philosophers’ primary charge is finding the truth and members of professions have duties to avoid things that make them predictably worse at their jobs. Empirical evidence exists that political involvement introduces biases that make the truth more difficult to discern. Hence, it is at odds with political philosophers’ professional duties.

Postmodern Philosophy is a Debating Strategy
The Foucauldian method, invoking a hermeneutic of suspicion, works by unveiling or demystifying the relations of power that constitute claims to truth.

The best response to van der Vossen, I think—and it is one he considers—is to say that if philosophers do have a duty of this kind, then it isn’t a duty that matters very much. After all, it will frequently be in competition with stronger duties, such as the duty not to stand idly by as injustice occurs. Philosophers shouldn’t eschew political engagement altogether. But the weaker claim that philosophers should generally avoid doing philosophy and political activism at the same time is reasonable. We should, out of epistemic modesty, avoid combining investigation with tasks likely to introduce bias—paradigmatically, political activism. The same goes for pedagogy.

If we had good evidence that service-learning is the best way to transmit philosophical ideas and methods, then the benefits would outweigh the risks. Four philosophers associated with the Engaged Philosophy website have published a pilot study that purports to show that philosophy courses with ‘civic engagement’ components have salutary effects.9 Students in service-learning classes, interviewed at the beginning and end of the semester, report gains in a variety of skills relevant to good citizenship. Qualitative analyses of students’ written final reflections supported these results.

We should be skeptical about these findings, however. The sample size is small; the number of students who completed both the pre- and post-course surveys, producing analyzable results, is apparently only 38, and these are aggregated from different institutions. The researchers rely on student self-assessments, not on tests that objectively quantify improvement. Finally, most of the things measured have little to do with understanding philosophical ideas. For example, each student is asked to rate, on a 1-6 scale, how much he or she is able “to see myself as a person who can bring about change.” Other evidence adduced to show that service-learning is effective philosophical pedagogy is susceptible to similar criticisms.10

I anticipate the objection that my demand for rigor is selective, since we also lack empirical evidence that traditional methods work.11 But we already have good reason to think that traditional methods have something going for them. Those of us who have doctorates in philosophy acquired our expertise through years of reading, writing, and listening to lectures (which service-learning enthusiasts deride as ‘sage on the stage’ teaching). If all of this were bankrupt, then our expertise, and the expertise of those with PhDs in other disciplines taught in the same way, would be hard to explain. Since it evidently isn’t bankrupt, the onus is on those who claim to have something better.

Even if service-learning classes have all the advantages enthusiasts claim, such classes should remain novelties. Integrating service-learning throughout the philosophy curriculum, as Valentine suggests, would likely accelerate the instrumentalization of higher education. Philosophers already face pressure—from administrators, politicians, and laypeople—to justify their discipline in terms of its economic. They shouldn’t want to find themselves facing similar pressure from within their own ranks.

The anti-theoretical tone of the service-learning movement, implicit even in the rhetoric of moderates, makes this worry reasonable. The slope here really is slippery. If we accept that even 20 percent of a student’s grades should be service-based—on, say, the grounds that philosophy belongs in the ‘real world’—then the open question will be “Why not more?” Most university classes can be repurposed as ‘service-learning’ courses; only philosophy concerns the fundamental questions at its core. Diverting attention away from theoretical concerns in an effort to make philosophy ‘relevant’ will instead make it redundant and irrelevant. Pressing philosophy into public service would be a disservice to philosophy.

Notes and References:

1 The advocates of Engaged Philosophy bill it as an alternative to service-learning because it is student directed. However, if service-learning (sometimes spelled with a hyphen, sometimes without) is simply pedagogy that involves service projects, then Engaged Philosophy is a form of service-learning. That is how I will be understanding the term here.
2 Valentine, Eugene J. “Service-Learning as Vehicle for Teaching Philosophy” in Beyond the Tower: Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Philosophy. Ed. David C. Lisman. (Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education, 2000), pp. 130.
3 Ibid.
4 For a typical example, see Peter Singer’s forward in Experiential Learning in Philosophy. Ed. J. Oxley and R. Ilea. (New York: Routledge UP, 2016), pp. xii-xiv.
5 Oxley, Julinna and Ramona Ilea, “Experiential Learning in Philosophy: Theory and Practice” in Experiential Learning in Philosophy, ed. by J. Oxley and R. Ilea. (New York: Routledge UP, 2016), p. 7.
6 Peirce, Charles Sanders. “Philosophy and the Conduct of Life” in The Essential Peirce Volume 2, ed. by The Peirce Edition Project (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1998), p. 34.
7 Ibid.
8 Van der Vossen, Bas, “In Defense of the Ivory Tower: Why Philosophers Should Stay Out of Politics,” Philosophical Psychology 28 (2015): 1045-1063
9 Hawthorne, Susan, Monica Janzen, Ramona Ilea, and Chad Wiener “Assessing Student-Initiated Civic Engagement Projects in Philosophy Classes” in Experiential Learning in Philosophy, ed. by J. Oxley and R. Ilea. (New York: Routledge UP, 2016).
10 Another study cited on the Engaged Philosophy website is Lies, James M, Tonia Bock, and Jay Brandenberger. “The Effects Of Off-Campus Service Learning On The Moral Reasoning Of College Students.” Journal Of Moral Education 41.2 (2012): 189-199. This reports that service-learning students increased their average scores on tests psychologists say track development in moral thinking (a control-group of randomly-selected students from the same university did not). Perhaps these findings reflect well on service-learning in general, but they aren’t, and don’t purport to be, evidence that civic engagement enhances philosophical instruction. Thinking about ethics like an adult, though desirable in an ethics student, doesn’t imply any knowledge of ethical theory. By analogy, service-related learning in a mathematics class might increase critical thinking generally without conferring knowledge of the specific mathematical concepts and procedures central to the class.
11 Philosopher Neven Sesardić has argued in an essay for Quillette that although philosophy departments claim to increase their student’s critical thinking abilities, all they know is that philosophy majors tend to have good test scores. So nothing rules out the possibility that philosophy simply attracts smart students. Economist Bryan Caplan has also, in his book The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money (Princeton University Press, 2018), produced a lot of very dispiriting evidence about education generally.

Spencer Case

Spencer Case is a writer and philosophy lecturer for the University of Colorado Boulder living in Wuhan, China. He is the host of Micro-Digressions: A Philosophy Podcast.

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