History of Service-Learning

A Brief History of Service Learning

By David Busch

What is the purpose of education? What is its role within a democracy? Throughout the 20th century, these questions captured the imagination of philosophers, educators, and activists in the United States and throughout the world.

Amidst rapid economic and social change at the turn of the 20th century, the American philosopher John Dewey contemplated the practice of education in the United States. He believed that education should be relevant to the lives and experiences of students and that every school should be a model community – a small democracy that immersed students in the practice of cooperation and exposed them to different points of view and experiences.

Center: John Dewey

John Dewey with young friends

Unlike traditional educators that stressed rote learning and an authoritative teacher, Dewey emphasized learning by doing. Experience and democracy were the central tenets of his philosophy of education. In his book, The School and the Community, Dewey wrote: “When the school introduces and trains each child of society into membership within such a little community, saturating him with the spirit of service, and providing him with instruments of effective self-direction, we shall have the deepest and best guarantee of a larger society which is worthy, lovely and harmonious.”

Dewey was not alone. Progressive activist Jane Addams, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, and Mahatma Gandhi all envisioned education rooted in community and democratic principles. In the early 1900s, Jane Addams started the Hull House in Chicago. As part of the Settlement House Movement that began in Europe, the Hull House provided educational and social services that were relevant to the pressing concerns of the day: urbanization, industrialization, and immigration.

Left: Jane Addams

Jane Addams at the Hull House, 1933

“The educational activities of a Settlement, as well as its philanthropic, civic, and social undertakings,” wrote Jane Addams in Twenty Years at Hull House, “are but different manifestations of the attempt to socialize democracy, as is the very existence of the Settlement itself.”

Mohandas Gandhi also believed in a form of education that built character and improved community. At his Sabarmati Ashram, Gandhi helped form a community that tied manual labor, agriculture and literacy closely together. He hoped the ashram would be a model for the rest of India and would help make the country self-sufficient. This Ashram was also the base and starting point of the Dandi (Salt) March.

Mahatma Gandhi with Ashram volunteers

Mahatma Gandhi with Ashram volunteers

Outside of his ashram, Gandhi also advocated for a form of education that encouraged community service and character building. Gandhi wrote that “true education lies in serving others” and “studies should be undertaken only with the aim of equipping oneself for service.”

In South America, Paulo Freire emphasized a form of education that aimed to empower, especially those that were economically and socially marginalized. For Freire, education had two functions: It “either functions as an instrument that is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes ‘the practice of freedom,’ the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” He advocated for the latter purpose. He believed in a form of education that raised critical consciousness (Conscientização) and enabled students to perceive social, political, and economic contradictions and take action against the oppressive elements of society.

Myles Horton and Paulo Freire at the Highlander Folk School, 1987

Myles Horton and Paulo Freire at the Highlander Folk School, 1987

The Highlander Folk School embodied these ideas of emancipatory education. Started in 1932 by Myles Horton and Don West, the Highlander Folk School was involved in the Labor movement in the 1930s and 1940s and the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. The school was modeled on the Danish Folk Schools, which emphasized creativity and close student-teacher interaction. The Highlander Folk School linked education to the economic, political, and racial problems of the South and of Appalachia in particular. One of the first schools to integrate black and white students, Highlander hosted such prominent civil rights leaders as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Ella Baker.

During the American civil rights movement, many activists implemented a form of education as service. In 1964, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Congress of Racial Equality Sponsored the Mississippi Freedom Summer. As part of the Freedom Summer, Freedom Schools were set up as alternative educational institutions that featured courses on African history, culture, and basic academic skills. The main purpose of these schools was empowerment through education, both for the students in Mississippi as well as the college volunteers that staffed many of the schools.

Freedom Summer Volunteers, 1964

Freedom Summer Volunteers, 1964

Classroom activities included voter registration work and political role-playing. In the teaching guide for the volunteers, the schools emphasized that the teachers would learn from their experience. “You, too, will be in a learning situation,” the SNCC teaching manual stated, “honesty means you ask questions as well as answer them.” The material in the class “should be related whenever possible to the experience of the students.” Teachers were encouraged to be aware of their role in the classroom and make sure that they were “not the dominant participant” but rather the facilitator responsible for “providing direction and keeping the discussion going.” The Freedom Schools epitomized an approach to education that tied social and political concerns with classroom materials and integrated the “service” experience as part of the learning process.

Several freedom summer activists returned to college eager to transform their learning. For Mario Savio, working as a freedom summer schoolteacher and helping lead voter registration drives was transformative. Participation in the civil rights movement and the Freedom Summer enabled him to connect “discussions of Socrates and Theoreau” to his participation in demonstrations and protests. By the fall of 1964, a couple months after his experience in the Freedom Summer, Savio would become a prominent figure in the Free Speech Movement, Savio and other FSM activists set up an alternative university on the campus of The University of California Berkley. Its character was a transplanted form of the Mississippi Freedom Schools. There was a discussion area and a space for dancing and singing led by folk singer Joan Baez. A Peace Corps trainer led Spanish classes in one part of the building and a sociology professor “discussed the theory of conflict in relation to… the Free speech issue.” A class was also formed around civil disobedience. Each of these classes was directly tied to the social experiences of the movement. These activists envisioned a form of education that built off their experiences in the civil rights movement and harkened back to the ideas of John Dewey.

Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone

Peace Corps Volunteer in Sierra Leone

Service-based approaches to education also inspired such volunteer programs as the Peace Corps and VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). These programs engaged many young Americans in service in the United States and throughout the world. President John F. Kennedy told NBC audiences in 1961 after signing an executive order to start the Peace Corps that the volunteers would “learn just as much as they [would] teach.” The Peace Corps reflected the ideas of John Dewey as it enabled young Americans to learn from their experiences in shaping communities. Robert Gaudino, a Peace Corps training director at Williams College in the 1960s, remarked that he saw the “overseas experience in the Peace Corps as an opportunity for education…That education begins in an open conversation with strangers. Probably the hardest and most difficult response for human beings anywhere is to listen to and to hear that which is different.” Many former volunteers and civil rights activists are now at the forefront of service-learning programs today.

In 1969, Peace Corps and VISTA officials along with university faculty members and students held a conference in Atlanta, Georgia and defined a new pedagogical approach to education: service-learning. Defined as the “integration of the accomplishment of a needed task with educational growth,” this approach attempted to capture the sentiment and student activism of the 1960s. Since 1969, service-learning has taken many forms. From the University Year of Service in the early 1970s that encouraged students to volunteer at local non-profits to the 1985 Campus Compact, an initiative that sought to encourage universities and colleges to create more service learning courses and opportunities on U.S. campuses. Over the course of the next thirty years, the service-learning movement grew dramatically on campuses throughout the United States and expanded globally. Today, the Campus Compact initiative now incudes over 1,100 colleges and universities. Students now have to opportunity to take “alternative Spring Breaks” in foreign countries or volunteer abroad in different parts of the world. However, many now wonder if the practice has become too “top down” and lost its more critical purpose that aimed to transform institutions, individuals, and society. The question for students and educators alike: Does its practices today reflect the purposes that many of its early advocates envisioned?

Arts Greenhouse SC101 workshop

The aim of service-learning is to enable students to see their actions in the larger context of social justice and social change. Rather than just encourage students to volunteer with a local food bank, service-learning courses should encourage students to consider the causes of hunger. Many service-learning practitioners aim to cultivate a greater sense of civic engagement and community involvement amongst college students. Like John Dewey and Paulo Freire, they strive to empower individuals to bring about effective social, economic and political change. The idea of education as a tool of social change has inspired activists, volunteers, and community leaders, from Jane Addams to SNCC activists in Mississippi. As you explore Social Change 101, keep this rich history in mind. The resources presented here should be used to inspire further action and reflection, as Dewey, Freire, and many others believed should be the aim of education. I think that knowledge of the past is vital,” civil rights activists James Farmer said in the 1960s, “but historical knowledge is not an end in itself. The more we learn about the past, the more we must recognize that we learn about it in order to bring a more humane society into being in this country.”


Further Reading:

Service-Learning: A Movement’s Pioneers Reflect on Its Origins, Practice, and Future, by Timothy K. Stanton, Dwight E. Giles Jr., and Nadinne I. Cruz

Experience and Education, by John Dewey

John Dewey and American Democracy, by Robert Westbrook

Twenty Years at Hull House, by Jane Addams

On Education, by Jane Addams

Education for Critical Consciousness, by Paulo Freire

Unearthing the Seeds of Fire: The Idea of Highlander, by Myles Horton and Frank Adams

Highlander: No Ordinary School, by John Glen

Freedom Summer, by Doug McAdams


And some useful links:

  • AMIZADE empowers individuals and communities through worldwide service and learning.
  • CAMPUS COMPACT promotes public and community service that develops students’ citizenship skills, helps campuses forge effective community partnerships, and provides resources and training for faculty seeking to integrate civic and community-based learning into the curriculum.
  • GLOBAL BRIGADES empowers university students and alumni to implement programs with partner communities abroad.
  • ASHOKA U catalyzes social innovation in higher education through a global network of entrepreneurial students, faculty and community leaders.