The potential for service-learning 

In recent years there has been an unprecedented degree of public examination and 
criticism of the American higher education system, with its knowledge-generation 
status, funding supports, instructional practices, and curricular offerings coming 
under vigorous critical scrutiny.  The upshot of this barrage, however, is not 
cleanly or uniformly targeted, as administration, faculty, staff, and even students 
can be found on all sides of a growing discomfort with the traditional role of the 
academy and its utility in the postmodern era.  It appears that many of higher 
education’s cherished truisms and sacrosanct assumptions about the very core 
enterprise of teaching, knowledge, and learning are on the block.

The intent of this special issue of Academic Exchange Quarterly is not to address 
the debate directly, but to acknowledge its presence as a backdrop to some positive 
developments that touch on a goodly share of the university’s mission and modus 
operandi in America. According to many scholars, the problems college graduates will 
face in the future will not be organized according to the categories of traditional 
academic disciplines, and the solutions will cross borders of discrete categories of 
research and study.  This prediction has encouraged many educators to reconsider 
the mission of American education and see how it can better fit the fast changing 
world picture, a world that will be more globally oriented.  Our schools and 
universities need to move beyond training young people for specific tasks; 
education must enable students to think critically and act deliberatively in a 
pluralistic world. 

This alternative approach demands a different kind of learning and thus, a 
different set of beliefs about teaching.  In education’s traditional paradigm, 
instructors teach by lecturing; a student is expected to learn by listening to 
the teacher and then completing sets of exercises about the information 
communicated.   As the 21st century unfolds, our educational curriculum must 
be rethought, revitalized, and renewed.  If fragmentation – or lack of 
interconnection – has been one of the chief characteristics of traditional  
American education, we must now begin to provide opportunities for students to 
see problems in context rather than as small units independent of the whole. 
The potential for service-learning (i.e., service that is intrinsically tied to 
teaching and research and that aims to bring about community improvement) in an 
interdisciplinary framework to expand the walls of the classroom, link the subject 
matter from diverse academic disciplines in relevant and meaningful ways, and 
reconfigure the design of educational programs in higher education offers much 
for future researchers and practitioners to explore.

This issue of Academic Exchange Quarterly features articles that examine diverse 
approaches to the design and implementation of service-learning projects in a 
variety of interdisciplinary contexts and settings. Several authors also discuss 
research and evaluation frameworks for service-learning in higher education. We 
invite the reader to consider the implications for the large and growing body of 
research findings on academically-based service learning to contribute to the 
dialogue on the academy’s mission in the 21st century.  

Dr. Judith Hope Munter, Assistant Professor
Critical Pedagogy and Multicultural Education
University of Texas at El Paso