Shaping Private Spiritedness? Lessons About Citizenship from Service Learning and the Fifth Grade

Lanethea Mathews-Gardner • Muhlenberg College

This essay originally appeared in the Political Science Educator’s April 2007 issue.  

This essay explores several important pedagogical lessons that emerged from a multiple-semester service learning partnership between students in introductory American National Government classes at Muhlenberg College and fifth graders at Jefferson Elementary School in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The partnership was loosely based on We the People: Project Citizen, a curriculum funded by the U.S. Congress and conducted by the National Conference of State Legislatures. This curriculum is designed to promote competent and responsible participation in local and state government, to create political efficacy among young Americans, and to build support for democratic values. The students who participated in the Muhlenberg-Jefferson partnership only loosely applied the Project Citizen curriculum; their charge was to identify concerns and issues facing their communities, neighborhoods, and schools and to take some kind of public action to address them. For example, they could write elected officials, lobby the state legislature, or conduct public awareness campaigns in local schools and communities. As the professor overseeing the service-learning project, I was deliberate in the design and chose a project that, I believed, would clearly communicate a participatory model of citizenship.

Sure enough, the Muhlenberg College-Jefferson Elementary School service learning partnership did result in participation, both among my college students and the Jefferson fifth graders. Students wrote letters, designed posters, and delivered presentations on local issues and programs, all of which called for change and improvement. But, frequently the participation this project generated was decidedly not public. Rather than seeking change from government and public policy (what I consider in this context to constitute “the public”), many students involved in this project focused on corporations, businesses, and the private sector as agents of change.

This essay is part of the Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List

I learned several lessons from this experience about the ways in which many young people—college-aged and younger—conceptualize their roles as citizens in relation to the public and private (or-nonpublic) realms. I also became more reflective about my role as a political science educator in negotiating student perceptions about the propensity for government and public policy vis a vis corporations and businesses in the private sector to effectively address social and economic issues.

Lessons from Research the Discipline

My aim was to create a service learning experience that would help students learn about politics and government. I sought to compel them to fulfill their responsibilities as citizens who have obligations to one another and to a shared vision of the public good. Like other political scientists embarking on service learning projects, I set out determined not to let service learning become a substitute for politics. The discipline of Political Science stands in tension with service-learning initiatives. Service learning is generally regarded as a good method for improving civic awareness, knowledge about democracy, and students’ notions of civic responsibility, but empirical evidence regarding these claims remains mixed. Indeed, much empirical evidence suggests that service learning may not have a meaningful impact on the ways in which students see themselves as citizens, nor does it have a big impact on how students view government. Perhaps more significantly, service learning is frequently practiced as an individualized alternative to collective mobilization in politics. This is troubling to political scientists for two primary reasons. First, service learning might discourage citizens from looking to public officials and government institutions for change and reform. In this sense, critics suggest that the service learning movement within higher education carries with it a particular ideological bent, i.e. a conservative conception of what “good citizenship” entails. This conception of citizenship is individualized rather than participatory and emphasizes the personal responsibility and character of individuals, rather than active participation and common understandings among groups of citizens. Related to this, political scientists fear that service-learning projects compel students to avoid “politics” in favor of apolitical volunteer activities. By eschewing electoral and “political” engagement, service-learning projects may become estranged from the very purposes of civic education.2

Thus, I designed a service-learning project that sought to compel students to “do politics” and that sought to impress on participants the value of participating in the public— and political—realm. In terms of political learning, it was my hope participants would learn how to express political demands; how to mobilize one another toward shared goals; how to participate in the political process, where, and through which parts of the government; how to negotiate obstacles and political opposition; and how to evaluate public policies and contemporary political issues.

I was also hopeful that this service-learning project would oblige students to address questions of social justice and power. Muhlenberg College is a small, private liberal arts institution located in the outskirts of Allentown, PA. The student body is affluent, overwhelmingly white (only 8% of 2200 students are nonwhite), and drawn primarily from upper class neighborhoods in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Jefferson Elementary School, in contrast, is a public school in the City of Allentown in a community that is overwhelmingly Latino and African American and in which approximately 70% of school-age children are eligible for the free lunch program.

Project Citizen in Practice

Working in small groups of two to four, fifth grade students participating in the Muhlenberg-Jefferson partnership identified the projects and issues that they wanted to address with their college-partners. They identified a range of issues ranging from school safety issues (such as children playing with lighters in school, bullying and playground violence, and street crossing concerns) to insufficient school resources (inadequate library and playground facilities) to environmental neighborhood issues (poorly maintained playgrounds, insufficient trash and recycling services, pollution and littering) to economic inequality (unaffordable gas prices, lack of transportation, inability to participate in extracurricular activities).

After the Jefferson students identified issues that they wanted to address, Muhlenberg students led them through a series of brainstorming activities to put together plans of action. They discussed in small groups how they could collectively work to “fix” them. Table 1 (see page 11) lists a sample of the problems and “solutions” thus identified. I have grouped their “solutions” into three categories that I am calling “public-spirited,” that is, solutions that directly look to public officials, government, and public policy for change; “mixed public-private-spirited,” those solutions that appealed to a combination of public and private or semi-private solutions, such as private donations, changes in individual behavior, and/or appeals to companies and business; and “private spirited solutions,” or solutions located solely within the private sector of business.

In this particular service-learning project, it was important to me that the identification of problems and solutions was an organic process for both Muhlenberg and Jefferson students. I deliberately tried not to influence the direction that the students headed in addressing the problems that they had identified as most important to them. I did not accompany my students during their weekly trips to Jefferson Elementary School; my only interaction with the project while it was in-process was reading and responding to my students’ journals and troubleshooting problems (transportation issues, negotiating behavioral problems, providing snacks for the fifth graders, etc.).

Pedagogical Lessons Learned: Public- versus Private-Spiritedness

It was not surprising to me that Jefferson students focused on very local issues. Not only was the list of “problems” constructed by students who were approximately 10 years old, but local issues affect citizens’ lives on a daily basis. These issues may have the greatest impact on public perceptions and predispositions about government and their role within it. I was surprised, however, that the Muhlenberg students did not adopt a more deliberate posture toward government and policy in seeking ways to address the problems identified by the fifth-graders.

Thus, the lesson I learned as a political science educator. Government is not obvious to our students, even in political science courses or in politically-oriented (or at least policy-oriented) community learning environments. Political scientists are generally agreed that government has receded from the lives of ordinary citizens over the last 4 or 5 decades. This service learning experience gave me a more complex sense of how young Americans conceptualize public problems and the relationship between the public and private sector in seeking solutions to those problems. Why did my students seek corporate donations to compensate for insufficient resources, rather than contacting elected officials or government leaders? I cannot say for sure, but my hunch is that my students pursued action that they believed would most likely lead to meaningful change. Perhaps they also appealed more to mixed public/private-spirited and private-spirited solutions because they feel more effectual in these realms compared to the political process.

I learned a lot about my own pedagogical approach to this kind of service learning partnership—it is clear, for example, that I need to be more directly engaged in the project to ensure that students are focusing on government and policy. I also think there are some lessons to be gleaned here about service learning more broadly. For example, my experiences seem to confirm past research which suggests that the most effective service learning projects are those that include sustained, focused reflection connecting out-of-classroom service with in-classroom learning. On its own, service learning may simply reinforce, rather than change, students’ perceptions about the relative responsibility government and citizens—and the private sector—share in addressing our communities’ most pressing social issues.


1More information is available at: index.php?page=introduction

2  Mary  A.  Hepburn,  Richard  G.  Niemi,  and  Chris Chapman, “Service Learning in College Political Science: Queries and Commentary,” in PS: Political Science and Politics (September 2000):617-622; Susan Hunter and Richard A. Brisbin, Jr., “The Impact of Service Learning on Democratic and Civic Values,” in PS: Political Science and Politics (September 2000): 623-634; Tobi Walker, “The Service/Politics Split: Rethinking Service to Teach Political Engagement,” in PS: Political Science and Politics (September 2000): 647-649; Joel Westheimer, “Introduction—The Politics of Civic Education,” in PS: Political Science and Politics (April 2004): 231-236; Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne, “Educating the ‘Good’ Citizen: Political Choices and Pedagogical Goals,” in PS: Political Science and Politics (April 2004): 241-248.

Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List presents select PSE articles from the previous 15 years. APSA Educate is please to announce it will feature all future Political Science Educator‘s issues.


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