Serving Our Neighbors: Learning across the Lines that Divide Us

June 17, 2012

By Chad Frey

As many pundits have pointed out, the upcoming elections have inaugurated silly season in Washington.  If only this could be dismissed as a passing period of political frivolity so we could all get back to the task of building of a better world.  Surely partisan rhetoric and personal attack ads don’t represent the best that our civic leaders have to offer a 21st century global society. Yet, I can’t help but wonder why an educated citizenry continues to reward self-aggrandizing politicians and media moguls who run roughshod over the common good. Have we lost our ability to imagine what responsible community engagement looks like?

As early as 1830, Alexis de Tocqueville argued that the very foundation of American society rests on balancing individuality with commitment to others. More recently under Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush, Ernest Boyer championed holistic educational reform that laid the basis for understanding responsible community engagement and service-learning as meaningful scholarship in higher education.  In an effort to break the prevailing individualism, isolation, and disconnections throughout all levels of educational systems and scholarship, Boyer advocated for a scholarship of engagement that sought to balance individual research agendas with community goals for the common good.  Quoting Oscar Handlin, Boyer reminds academics that our ravaged environment “can no longer afford the luxury of pursuits confined to an ivory tower…scholarship has to prove its worth not on its own terms but by service to the nation and the world.”

Concerned by the disintegration of common good in higher education and the inability to respond to societal changes and needs, The Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University issued a challenge to educators to better teach students how to move into a world of discovery where they become “active participants, not passive receivers”.  Toward this end, The Boyer Commission developed an Academic Bill of Rights, issuing the following clarion call to educators.

“The research university owes every student an integrated educational experience in which the totality is deeper and more comprehensive than can be measured by earned credits.  The research university’s ability to create such an integrated education will produce a particular kind of individual, one equipped with a spirit of inquiry and a zest for problem solving; one possessed of the skill in communication that is the hallmark of clear thinking as well as mastery of language; one informed by a rich and diverse experience.  It is that kind of individual that will provide the scientific, technological, academic, political, and creative leadership for the next century.”

In effect, the Boyer Commission described not only a particular kind of student, but a particular type of scholarship.  This type of teaching and learning moves students through a maturation process of developing cultural and spiritual commitments for the common good.  Boyer believed that this type of engaged scholarship was nurtured in particular learning communities that were:

  • Educationally purposeful (Where learning is the focus)
  • Open (Where civility is affirmed)
  • Just (Where persons are honored and diversity pursued)
  • Disciplined (Where group obligations guide behavior)
  • Caring (Where individuals are supported and service is encouraged)
  • Celebrative (Where traditions are shared.)

Far more than mere characteristics of a good classroom, these can be considered educational and political directives for creating contexts in both the classroom and the community where students are encouraged to imagine new ways to responsibly serve and lead a complex 21st century society.  Arguably, this social component of education reaches across the political, social, religious, economic, and cultural lines that divide us to instead focus on the values that we share together within a diverse and pluralistic society, namely the common good.  Boyer understood that a rigorous scholarship must require a broad intellectual foundation to help students think creatively, communicate effectively, and place ideas in larger geo-political and socio-economic  contexts.  Glassick, Huber, Maeroff state that scholarship can be assessed as “good” when it moves beyond being merely a “good product” to examine the moral aspects of integrity, perseverance, and courage that informs all its dimensions of discovery, teaching, integration, and application.  These characteristics were hallmarks of Boyer’s approach to life and education that were deeply rooted in his faith.

Parker Palmer says that, “Ernie Boyer’s contribution to the renewal of community in higher education is found not only in his thinking, his writing, his speaking, and his projects.  It is also found in his personal embodiment of grace.”  Boyer’s work made room for educators committed to service-learning and community engagement in a variety of higher education contexts to explore how their faith traditions informed their scholarship and provided them with a solid platform on which to bridge lines between the classroom and the community to find solutions to real problems on behalf of an increasingly global society.  Boyer’s work expanded the scope of scholarship as a dynamic interplay between practice and theory as a space “in which the rigid categories of teaching, research, and service are broadened and more flexibly defined”.

Using Boyer as a foundation, I’ve had the privilege of hosting several national conferences on faith-based service-learning at Messiah College where I direct the Agape Center for Service and Learning.  During each of these conversations,  I’ve seen Boyer’s vision for an engaged learning community in action as colleagues from across the nation convene to explore how faith richly informs service-learning.  Through my conversations with others, I’ve discovered how my own Anabaptist, Pietist, and Wesleyan heritage has largely informed my understanding of the common good, responsible community engagement, and prophetic imagination for how to build a better world.

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Chad Frey serves as the Director of the Agape Center for Service and Learning at Messiah College. His research interests include Christian education, spiritual formation, higher education, adult education, and community development. Chad teaches service-learning courses in General Education focused on Christian hospitality, service, mission, and social change.

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