Editorial: Urban needs to respect Service Learning

There is a clear disconnect between the way Urban markets its Service Learning curriculum and how students experience the course. On the Urban website, the school promises to transform them into “responsible, resourceful citizens, often achieving a level of social and political awareness that is rare among teenagers.” But upon closer examination, Service Learning teachers at Urban are lucky to have students complete even the most basic of homework assignments. Service Learning has become a victim of the misalignment between Urban’s stated values and the reality of Urban’s culture.

Service Learning should be an experience that pushes students to think deeply about our identity and how it affects the way they experience society. It should give them the foundation needed to understand how racism is bigger and more complex and pervasive than they realize; Service should guide students to think critically about the complexities of intersectionality and how injustices are perpetuated by the very institutions designed to prevent them. While teaching this may seem like a lofty goal, it is possible and Urban’s Service curriculum has the right bones to successfully do so. Through the elimination of repetitive material, Service can more easily get students excited and immersed. However, Service can only do so much when students aren’t willing to engage with the material.

Urban, for better or worse, now functions as a college preparatory institution, which comes with both a cultural and institutional pressure on students to perform in traditional academic courses. Urban course loads are very demanding and when teachers of classes seen as more academic overwork students, students are put in a position where they have to make choices about what work and courses they will prioritize. Because Service Learning is not considered a solid class, when students are faced with too much work, Service is often the first thing to be deprioritized, despite it being a class that gives students the framework to think critically about social issues and systems of oppression. Service Learning at Urban requires vulnerability, curiosity and an openness to grapple with uncomfortable and difficult topics; when students are exhausted, they are less likely to thoughtfully engage with the material.

Service is capable of producing profound and positive effects on student understandings of identity, but when deprived of the respect it needs from the student body, the class struggles to achieve its goals. When students tune out or disengage from Service, they miss out on some of the most important lessons taught at Urban. Urban students are extremely privileged to have a one-of-a-kind Service program. As students in a privileged position at an elite institution, it is the students’ responsibility to understand and use their privilege to benefit those less fortunate.

When students tune out and disengage in Service Learning, they are sending a message to their fellow students and Service teachers that they don’t care about core issues regarding identity. For example, in Service Learning 11, when students ignore or distract from discussions on race, it sends a message, intentional or not, that they don’t value the experiences of their peers of color.

Students leaving Service classes, ignoring homework and refusing to take part in difficult discussions are too common and normalized at Urban. This disrespect for teachers and disregard toward such an important aspect of the Urban experience demonstrates that despite the dominant narrative, Urban students are not as in tune with their privilege as they claim to be. Students must hold both themselves and their peers accountable, so as not to squander an opportunity to become more aware and empathetic citizens. If we as a community want to reap the benefits of a world-class Service curriculum and faculty, it is up to us to foster a culture in which respect for others and a willingness to learn are valued.