The University Record, February 4, 1998

Service learning should become natural part of what faculty do

Ira Harkavy delivered the first John Dewey Lecture. Photo by Bob Kalmbach


By Joel Seguine
University Relations

Creating a new democratic, American, "Deweyan" university for the new century through campus-community collaboration was the fitting theme of the inaugural John Dewey Lecture, delivered Jan. 29 by Ira Harkavy of the University of Pennsylvania.

Speaking in the Tribute Room at the School of Education on "Campus and Community: Research, Learning, and Collaboration in the 21st Century," Harkavy, a historian and champion of service learning, stated that the goal of the new American university as he envisions it is to create a better, more democratic America, an idea stemming directly from Dewey. He is associate vice president and director of the Center for University Partnerships at Penn.

The legacy of Dewey, whose philosophy Harkavy said has heavily influenced his own thinking over the past 10 years, includes the idea that genuine learning occurs best when focusing on genuine, core problems in the community. Harkavy pointed out that Dewey formulated this and others of his most influential ideas while on the U-M faculty in 1884-94.

Preparing students for active participation in the democratic system, including the solution of core community problems, is also "consonant with the founding principles of the American university," Harkavy said. He cited Johns Hopkins and Columbia universities and the University of Chicago--where Dewey formulated his philosophy of pragmatism "in the crucible of engagement of the university with its community" in collaboration with Jane Addams and Ellen Starr of Hull House--as examples of great urban universities that first taught on these principles.

However, Harkavy said, the American university lost its way in the wake of the horror and disillusionment of World War I, leading to "an inward looking, scientific approach" that ultimately distanced universities from their surrounding communities. The test of success became, he said, "the mere collection and dissemination of knowledge for its own sake." The Cold War later led to heavy governmental funding of defense-related research, which widened the "marked disjunction between the promise and the power of the American university and its performance in solving society's pressing problems," he said.

Today there is increasing pressure on the great research universities in particular to justify the public's continued investment in them by redirecting resources to solving those pressing problems, especially in the cities, Harkavy said. Along with governmental demands, he said, voices raised in this critique include higher education leaders such as former Harvard president Derek Bok, who asked in his 1990 book, Universities and the Future of America: "If universities are so important to society and if ours are so superior," why isn't America's society flourishing in comparison to other industrialized countries?

The way to address this critical issue, Harkavy said, is to "change the culture within the university by making service learning--the integration of teaching, research, and service--what we do by changing the way we teach." That means "focusing intellectual energy in solving core problems by engaging communities in the process" and calls for "significant serious, sustained, active engagement with public schools and their communities."

Though "Dewey himself never saw the power of the university" as it exists today, Harkavy said his ideas can lead "the American university to a full-hearted, full- minded contribution to an America that fulfills its democratic promise."

The John Dewey Lecture was co-sponsored by the Center for Learning through Community Service and the School of Education. It is part of a larger series on "Knowledge for Change: Strategies for Community-Based Research" sponsored the Office of the Vice President for Research, the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program and other U-M units. For information, call 647-7402.