Ideal and real in service learning: Transforming the ideal based on the real

Tania D. Mitchell, David M. Donahue

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

4 Scopus citations


Service learning calls on the ideals of many, including administrators, students, faculty, and community partners. There are expectations that service learning and community engagement experiences respond effectively to community needs (Bringle & Hatcher, 1996), develop students’ civic capacities (National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, 2012), and engage the resources of the university to solve society's grand challenges (Lisman, 1998). Those ideals can motivate students to put in more time, thought, and concern than in other courses. They can prompt faculty to step out of the comfortable boundaries of the classroom and the feeling of control and authority such classrooms convey. They can sustain community partners as they put in the extra hours to train and educate students while still toiling to meet the direct mission of their organizations. Generally speaking, ideals and idealism are seen as unambiguously good and inspiring. And in the sense of ideals as a set of moral and ethical principles and idealism as calling on our “better natures,” this is true. Ideals can also function in another way, as abstractions without connection to the real world. These abstract ideals are akin to what Dewey (1934/2005) calls “recognition” or perception cut short. Perception requires careful observation and attention to particulars. Abstract ideals can be shallow. They can also be compared to norms, which are limiting and potentially damaging when they are imposed on those unable or unwilling to conform (Butler, 1990). Service learning has its own set of ideals. Butin (2006) has written about how the “ideal” student in service learning has been conceptualized, with the “overarching assumption” that this student is “White, sheltered, middle-class, single, without children, un-indebted, and between ages 18 and 24” (p. 481). His concern – that this abstract, normative ideal has the potential to do damage to students and communities as well as the potential to limit service learning to the margins of academia – is not without merit. In this chapter, we describe how “ideals,” not only those of students but of contexts of serving and learning, limit the practice of service learning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Handbook of Service Learning and Community Engagement
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)9781316650011
ISBN (Print)9781107153783
StatePublished - Jan 1 2017

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© Cambridge University Press 2017.


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