April 19, 1999
Volume 51, No. 28
'Shallow' service doesn't speak to best community
In a lecture on April 7, Keith Morton wondered if the recent rise in community service activity across university campuses has produced results "a mile wide and an inch deep."
Speaking on "Ironies of Service: Ethics, Service and Community," Morton, associate director of the Feinstein Institute for Public Service at Providence College and a professor of American studies, argued that community service has become a means to resolving societal crises of integrity and identity.
Morton outlined the "do's and don'ts" of service learning goals. Personal fulfillment should be viewed as a benefit of social outreach, not its central purpose, he said. And projects such as feeding the homeless should be a means to an end, not the end in itself. "The goal is not to have more service or more projects," he asserted. "The goal is to have healthy communities."
Sponsored by the Center for Ethics, the Theory-Practice Learning Initiative and the Martin-Massee Distinguished Teaching Chair, Morton's two-day visit offered faculty, staff and students the opportunity to envision and strategize an infrastructure for university- community partnerships at Emory.
During his five years at Providence, Morton has helped create and implement a major and minor in Public and Community Service. He also wrote a book on the cultural history of American service and moved the Feinstein Institute from conception to an integral part of life at the college. The institute's mission is to provide students with an educational experience within a liberal arts curriculum that prepares them to become builders of human communities and responsible citizens of a democratic society, he said.
Joining in a faculty conversation with Morton was Howard Kushner, director of the graduate program in interdisciplinary studies at San Diego State University, on campus for the installation ceremony of Emory's Science and Society Program. "Emory is one of the most progressive schools I've visited," Kushner said, and added that the "time seems right" for generating initiatives to support the integration of research, teaching and community partnerships here.
Offering another perspective was Emory law professor Abdullahi An-Na'im. Deeply invested himself in scholarship on behalf of social change, An-Na'im expressed to Morton the difficulty of integrating activism with research in his own academic setting. While his initiative on human rights and Islamic family law has the potential to reach 50 countries and 120 million Muslims, Emory "law faculty and students show little interest in this work," he said.
Perhaps An-Na'im's project could be supported by a center-like the Feinstein Institute-that explicitly integrates research with activism for healthy communities, Morton suggested. There, faculty across disciplinary lines join together with community leaders to "engage our students, help them claim their own ground, connect local and global knowledge and deepen their commitments," he explained.
As an "experiment in community," Morton concluded, partnerships in service are certainly not the only way for individuals to help form healthy societies. "But it's the best experiment I've found to address the worst problems of [our] day."