An earlier version of this article was published in educational Horizons Vol 80, no. 4 (Spring 2002)

Romantics, Idealists and True Service Learning
©2002 Edward G. Rozycki

reedited 1/26/1
See also, Student as Client


true adj . faithful, real, trustworthy. When modifying a following noun, the word true is emphasized by a speaker to arrogate authority to the himself/herself by:

a. indicating his/her preferred alternative; and
b. insinuating strongly that no critical discussion of the his/her choice is invited


The majority of educators I have worked with have been optimists; even more, they have been – much in the traditional literary sense of the word – Romantics.

Romantic n A person who, rather than seeing the glass as half empty, insists on seeing it as half full; even when it is only a quarter full.

This is probably the source, not only of their optimism, but of the substantial nurturant generosity they possess. Educators tend to see "potential" in students that even their parents miss. Passing a student for effort is another manifestation of this attitude.

But there is a danger here, too, since extreme Romantics tend to the delusion that wishes automatically generate

a. resources,
b. the obligation for others to provide them.

(This Romanticism is probably the root of the long American tradition of imagining that all social evils can be dealt with via education.1)


Many, many educators are also – in common parlance – Idealists.

Idealist n a person who is willing to forego the appreciation of a job well done for the right to complain that it was not done perfectly.
The virtue of Idealists is their continual striving for betterment. However, this quality not infrequently tends to pathology, as with the school boards that adopt idiot slogans like, "Excellence in Everything" or the parents who berate their children for the one B on a report card otherwise all A's.

There is a tendency among idealists to sacrifice the good in hand to the pursuit of a rarely achieved perfection. They act as though there were no such thing as diminishing returns, i.e. that further enhancement is always worth the cost, especially if it is not their cost.

Idealism found in a person already Romantic makes for a dangerous mix: a general attitude that because the Romantic Idealist wants it better, it can be made better and, thus, someone is obliged to help make it better, costs nothwithstanding.

True Service Learning

So we find Idealism alive and well among proponents of Service Learning. But let us begin with an unpretentious definition.

Service Learning: Service provided by students that fulfills academic goals of, or, set for, the students2.

Many practitioners explain it this way. Let's do a little analysis here, carefully considering the meanings of the words. Clearly, nothing would be a service if it were superfluous, so some kind of need on the part of those served is assumed: bringing me a second copy of the morning newspaper to read is not doing me a service, if I have read the first.

It would not be a service if the action were unwanted, so acceptance on the part of the recipient is presumed -- the robber who takes your money at gunpoint is not providing you with a financial service.

A practical consideration is relevant here. Students –– especially K-12 pupils –– would not likely be transported to far locations to render their service, so some local definition of community is presumed.

To cite an example: at a Bartram High School satellite in Philadelphia 9th Graders with low reading skills regularly visit a nearby elementary school where they read stories to 2nd Graders and mentor them in learning to read and write. This not only motivates them to improve their own skills but also provides important support to the 2nd graders. This example would generally understood to be one of service learning.

"But," objects our Romantic Idealist, "is this TRUE service learning?" Then, depending upon his or her philosophical predilections, or political leanings, or intestinal pressure, or whatever, he or she introduces a list of conditions that work to dismiss present programs as inferior or mal-formed.

True Service Learning (TSL): (as articulated by its proponent) Community service done by students that serves an academic goal for those students that also meets conditions X and Y that I (and my confreres) consider important. (Do NOT question our judgment!)

And so we find a condition appended such as:

"the needs of the community dictate the service being provided"3.
Logically, this is superfluous, since as we saw above the very term, service, presumes need and acceptance, and practical considerations define the community.

Why must someone (who, particularly) in the community dictate, rather than suggest, cajole or request the service? Is this word "dictate" meant to indicate priority of the "dictator's" demand over the needs of the students doing the service learning? What would the students' parents think of that? And how might the State School Code restrain the demands of the dictator?

However, despite our criticisms, there is a concern here. Behind all of this talk about who "dictates to whom" is a recognition that Romantic Idealistic educators are euphemism junkies! They set up programs and call them Service Learning, when in fact, no service may be rendered. Let me illustrate: I was hired as headmaster of a school which had a required service learning component for students in grades ten through twelve. The service program was badly organized. What actually was happening was that the school was foisting off its students on local institutions and businesses without any clear notion as to how these students were to be helping them, or what, in turn the students were to be getting out of it. The lie was, of course, that our students were providing a service. The second lie was that they were learning entrepreneurship, organizational culture, etc. etc. in return. A very few were. The very great majority were wasting their time.


The Romantic Idealistic proponent of True Service Learning might also suggest

"The goal of the service is to empower students and those being served."4

Is this "empowerment" compatible with the conditions analyzed above for being a service, i.e. need, and acceptance? Is it compatible with meeting academic goals? Are these questions ever considered?

"Empower". Now that is a term of stunning univocality and clarity! "The goal to empower students and those being served," as though educators might, without the TSL proponent's gracious guidance, blunder into debilitating both student and community! The power of educators –– compared to that of other professions, e.g. law, politics, medicine, the military –– is so potentially dangerous that academics and edugurus have to take time from their busy schedules every so often to jawbone educators into awareness of what dangerous people they might be.

But the empowerment issue is really a distractor. It works to allay concern about a presumably undesirable outcome that has, in fact, long been a reality: the wolf in sheep's clothing suggesting to other sheep that some sheep might be wolves in sheep's clothing. Whatever you want to call what educators do, they are not rendering their students a service, if school attendance is compulsory. This is not to say that it is morally wrong. But it is the special status of children that justifies our treating them in ways that would be intolerable with adults. This flies in the face of a lot of educational rhetoric about "serving the children" but most of this is blather anyway.

Service not freely rendered is servitude. K-12 participation in service learning is compelled by law. On top of it, "service learning" is the notion of some Romantic Idealists as to how to get children to be different from what their parents, society and culture are shaping them to be: self-absorbed, politically apathetic, improvement-seeking-but-not-improvement-paying-for delusionaries, i.e. another variety of Romantic/ Idealist.

Service learning is as likely to help revitalize civic commitment on the part of our children as is health education about diet likely to reverse the general trend in our country toward obesity. Not that it's a bad idea, but too much is against it. I don't imagine that any educator in Winston-Salem, North Carolina is put onto a career fast track by demonstrating success in convincing students not to smoke. Nor do I imagine that any town that has a Frito-Lay plant, or a MacDonald's providing substantial numbers of jobs to its citizens looks with fond regard on educators who manage to get their kids to resist junk food.

Just as we've seen Values Clarification, Critical Thinking and Sex Education drawn and quartered wherever students have had the audacity to carry their learning back into their communities and act on them, so we ought to expect that Service Learning will undergo some eviscerating redefinition should it begin to knock up against the Approved Myths –– the traditional Romantic Idealisms -- of powerful interests in our society.


1. See, for example, Henry Perkinson The Imperfect Panacea. American Faith in Education. (1995) Fourth Edition,. New York: McGraw-Hill.

2. See the Widener University dissertation of Donald R. Godwin (2002) “Functional Motivations: recruiting college students to perform community service” for a broad review of the literature on service learning.

3. See, for example, “What is Service Learning” (Former link, now outdated.)

4. Four Things Faculty Want to Know About! #2 How is service-learning different from community service, internships, cooperative ed, etc. .