October 29, 2003
Colorado Springs, CO: I'm at a conference of developmental psychologists, talking about service-learning. To repeat a definition used below, "service-learning" is some combination of community service with academic work on the same subject. Almost half of American high schools claim to use this approach. Most of the important debates about service-learning are really about values: Do we want to produce caring citizens who are likely to volunteer and provide face-to-face services? Do we want to produce citizens who are aware of social problems such as homelessness and hunger and may later act politically? What kinds of social and political knowledge do we want to foster? And so on.
The papers by the developmental psychologists were highly "normative": full of moral claims. I was a little afraid that they would want to present these claims as scientific, as based on technical expertise. In my view, that would be illegitimate. But the psychologists I talked to emphasized that their normative positions do not follow from their research. Rather, developmentalists enter the field motivated by a set of moral concerns, which draw their attention to certain facts about the way children grow. In particular, they tend to believe in the intrinisic value of activities that are normal at each stage in development. Thus they don't only see service-learning as an "intervention" that may produce discrete outcomes much later in life. Service-learning is rather something that people do for partly intrinsic reasons. This approach raises a researchable, empirical question: is service-learning deeply satisfying and rewarding for participants while they are doing it?
I find the moral motivations of developmental pyschologists (at least the ones I have met here) very attractive.