The moral and civic effects of learning to serve

Daniel Hart, M. Kyle Matsuba, Robert Atkins

Publication Date: 01/01/2014

By 1999, 64% of all public schools had students participating in service activities, and then between 1984 and 1999 the number of high schools offering community service opportunities rose from 27% to over 80% (National Center for Education Statistics, n.d.). More recently, in a 2007-2008 survey of 1,190 colleges, it was found that nearly one-third of students participated in service (Campus Compact, 2009). And although slight declines have occurred over the past two years, close to 64.5 million people reported volunteering in 2012 (US Department of Labor, 2013), contributing 7.9 billion hours of service, which is estimated to be valued at $171 billion (Corporation for National and Community Service, 2013). Given the prevalence of volunteering and the economic and social value of volunteering to our nation, leaders continue to call the American people to service (United We Serve, 2013). Service work may not only advantage the community, but also foster development among its participants. Recent reviews have claimed a multitude of benefits for students ranging from increases in academic performance to heightened self-esteem (Celio, Durlak, & Dymnicki, 2011; Conway, Amel, & Gerwien, 2009; Furco & Root, 2010; van Goethem, forthcoming). Given the prosocial, civic nature of community service, it is not surprising that the consensus among these reports is that community service also supports moral and character development. The multitude of benefits has led to the development of service-learning programs in schools and universities. This chapter explores the extent to which service-learning is associated with good outcomes, and the paths through which service might lead to these outcomes. We begin by selectively reviewing the service-learning literature highlighting the various theoretical paradigms and the empirical research findings as they relate to moral and civic attitudes and behaviors. We then explore the practical similarities between service-learning and community service programs as revealed in research and discuss possible implications of these similarities. Finally, we present recent research on volunteering that raises important issues for service-learning and community service practitioners.