Danika Brown

University of Arizona

Rethinking Marxism, 2000
Conference Paper

Learning to Serve?:

The Necessity of Marxist Critique in Service Learning Curricula

In the first years of the Twentieth Century, George Bernard Shaw wrote Major Barbara-a play that lays bare the relationship of political economies, war, poverty, and class inscriptions. Shaw's own preface to the play is itself a scathing critique of socio-economic structures and the apparatuses that support and perpetuate them. The focus of the play is a once-poor illegitimate character, Undershaft who has made his riches in the business of arming a country for war; his good-hearted, well-intentioned daughter, Barbara who has committed herself to the Salvation Army, the "army of the poor"; and her betrothed, Cusins, who shares Barbara's ideals but not her faith. For Shaw, Major Barbara and the Salvation Army are representative of religious/social organizations that attempt to mitigate and mediate the effects of poverty. But, for Shaw, those organizations are very clearly in service to the system which creates the poverty it would ameliorate. Shaw allows Undershaft, capitalist extraordinaire, to be the spokesperson for the function of social service organizations to the machinery of capitalist logic. In an exchange with the still idealistic Cusins regarding Barbara, whom Undershaft would like to "save" from her "unnatural" worshipping of poverty, Undershaft blatantly states this relationship:

Undershaft. You shall see. All religious organizations exist by selling themselves to the rich.

Cusins. Not the [Salvation] Army. That is the Church of the poor.

Undershaft. All the more reason for buying it.

Cusins. I dont think you quite know what the Army does for the poor.

Undershaft. Oh yes I do. It draws their teeth: that is enough for me as a man of business.

Cusins. Nonsense! It makes them sober-

Undershaft. I prefer sober workmen. The profits are larger.

Cusins. -honest-

Undershaft. Honest workmen are most economical.

Cusins. -attached to their homes-

Undershaft. So much the better: they will put up with anything sooner than change their shop.

Cusins. -happy-

Undershaft. An invaluable safeguard against revolution.

Cusins. -unselfish-

Undershaft. Indifferent to their own interests, which suits me exactly.

Cusins. -with their thoughts on heavenly things-

Undershaft. [rising] And not on Trade Unionism nor Socialism. Excellent.


What Shaw's critique reminds us is that the logic of capitalism is ubiquitous. Major Barbara has the best of intentions: she is moved to help those in need; she believes, she has faith that the work she does with the Salvation Army is good work and an appropriate response to what she finds unacceptable in the ideology of Undershaft. But we know that although she appears to be rejecting capitalist exploitation, she is blindly working in service to it-tending to the architecture of the superstructure.

I call attention to the words of Undershaft in Major Barbara to call into question the strategy of service learning in education. Service learning is the integration of community service into course curriculum in an experiential education model. Students put course concepts into practice in "real world" situations (based on Dewey's model of learning by doing), but they do so in community and nonprofit organizations. The goal of service learning, then, is that students learn in a more effective fashion, the community receives the benefit of student assistance (ostensibly making educational institutions responsive to community needs), and students gain exposure to social issues. Instructors who use service learning and funders who support service learning programs often state as an explicit goal the "instilling in students a commitment of volunteerism" that will positively impact the social fabric of this country.

Service learning has become extremely popular, supported institutionally and by private foundations, both monetarily and in terms of legitimation through academic publications, conferences, and special interest groups. Enthusiastic, idealistic instructors and administrators embrace the notion of "serving to learn, learning to serve" as a renaissance in civic ideals and civic educational missions. An examination of how service learning is framed and what the implications of that framing are, however, suggests that service learning is rapidly becoming our "Major Barbara."

Service learning is often written about in terms of developing "social capital" (cf: Putnam, "Bowling Alone"), or as creating students as "agents of social change" (cf: Cushman, "The Rhetorician as Agent of Social Change"). In higher education, especially, students are sent into communities as ambassadors of the academy, armed with literacy skills to work with "disadvantaged" communities and give those who are "disadvantaged" access to the privileges of literacy, education-the ivory tower, if you will. Often, students return to the classroom and "reflect" on their experiences with the "Other" in communities, weaving narratives of individual conscience and hope, pity, redemption, and frustration.

The common message of service learning as it is currently implemented is that education is a privilege, makes an individual "better" than others and able to help or speak for the poor, the uneducated, the disadvantaged. The message continues that if you are lucky enough to be privileged in this fashion, your responsibility is to help others who are not, to give them the opportunity to have some of the opportunities you have had. The focus of service learning is individual commitment to helping others, direct volunteerism as band-aid measures, and most importantly protecting the discursive power of institutional knowledge. In short, as Shaw suggests in his own critique, service learning often simply enables those in power to feel better about being in power and provides enough relief to the materially exploited to keep them exploited.

At this point, we might draw the conclusion that service learning is "the opium of the people," reject and resist it, and get on with the work of bringing about the conditions of revolution. However, I would like to warn against this too-easy criticism and rejection. If as Marx suggests in the Communist Manifesto, that the weapons of the bourgeoisie's rise to power will be the same weapons-wielded by the proletariat-that bring about revolution, and if critique is not a sufficient response to systems of power, might we look again at the potential of service learning to be reappropriated from liberal, capitalist functions and envision a way to utilize it in service to a more radical agenda?

As an example of how and why we might want to utilize Marxism to appropriate service learning for a radical agenda, I look to Liberation Theology. While I, and I suspect many of you, do not subscribe to any religious faith and I certainly do not mean to place a religious agenda on the table, the case of Liberation Theology perhaps teaches us a great deal about the reappropriation of the tools of oppression. Christianity has historically served the interests of capitalism in an extraordinarily effective fashion. The ideological work done in the name of God, from colonization to the pacification of the most desperately exploited peoples in the world, makes Christianity, in many senses the handmaiden of capitalism. Nonetheless, religion is such an effective apparatus because it also functions to bring humans together, provides direction and coherence, because it in some ways mends the alienating atomization and fragmentation wrought by economic exploitation. Liberation theologists-those who combine a deep sense of religious faith with Marxist theory-recognize the power of religion as having the potential to work for social justice rather than for oppression.

Utilizing a Marxist framework for analysis, liberation theologists are able to expose the ideological work of religion and at the same time call for a re-interpretation that leads to class consciousness and ideals of social justice. Juan Luis Segundo, in "The Hermeneutic Circle," explains: "When we view religion under the lens of ideological suspicion, it shows up as two things: (1) as a specific interpretation of Scripture imposed by the ruling classes in order to maintain their exploitation-though this intention may never be made explicit; and (2) as an opportunity for the proletariat to convert religion into their own weapon in the class struggle through a new . . . interpretation of the Scriptures" (73). This type of reinterpretation is what enables the "Declaration of the 80"-the declaration of a group of priests in Santiago Chile as Christians for Socialism, which powerfully reappropriates religion in service to a socialist ideal: "As Christians, we do not see any imcompatability between Christianity and socialism. . . . The fact is that socialism offers new hope that persons can be more complete. . . ; that is, more conformed to Jesus Christ, who came to liberate us from any and every sort of bondage" (13).

Again, I do not wish to evangelize here, but I am inspired by the power of this reappropriation and the difference liberation theology has made in the struggles of the people in Latin America. It seems to me that perhaps the most effective way to address the current situation in service learning is precisely to reappropriate it for all of its radical potential-potential I understand as challenging the discursive boundaries and intellectual containment within the academy, potential to interrogate the privilege of education and create class consciousness, potential to force students and academics out of comfortable positions of privilege and into the recognition of their own complicity in systems of oppression. Marxist critique, to my mind, is the only route to that reappropriation and realization of that potential.

In order for service learning to be more than the mass creation of an army of volunteers alleviating the surface level pain caused by economic systems, or enabling the structures of exploitation, an integral part of service learning *must* be critique. It is irresponsible, from a radical pedagogy perspective, to send students out into communities to further reify the conditions of exploitation under the blanket of an unarticulated ideology. It is unacceptable to silently reinforce totalizing hierarchies by allowing students to believe that their role in community service is to share privilege, as if the logic of everyone having the apparent opportunity to have access is the same as guaranteeing everyone access. However, it is no less effective to reject the necessity of students moving outside of academic walls and working within communities to gain an understanding of what their education, what the system they are gaining entree into creates and necessitates.

I do not fully know how to achieve this goal, but I have made it a priority to approach the questions and possibilities I have raised here. Briefly, I would like to provide an example of ways that I have joined critique and service learning in my own classrooms, teaching first year composition at a public university. In English 102, a course that utilizes the analysis of literary texts as its model, my curriculum might include analyses of The Communist Manifesto, the reading of a literary text that bring class issues to the surface (A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines has proven an accessible and effective text in the past), and a text like Major Barbara that problematizes (to put it mildly) the whole notion of community service for students-and instructors. Coupling these types of critical readings with various community service projects-fulfilling a research project for a community organization; working on a newsletter for a coalition of organizations solving local issues; developing oral histories for marginalized groups; creating websites for community information such as living wage campaigns; participating in research and promotion of student activism activities-changes the nature of the service students do. Because students are actively engaged in analyzing larger structural and systemic questions and joining the work they do in the community with those analyses, they much more readily problematize their own ideological assumptions and are not allowed the comfort of leaving a system in place while tending to their own individual guilt about the consequences of that system.

This is a start. But, it's not sufficient. Much more theoretical work needs to be done in terms of service learning. Critical engagement with service learning from Marxist theory needs much more attention. Service learning programs need to be developed, not from within institutional service learning offices, but from meaningful collaboration between activists-academic and community activists. These programs need to have as a goal, not individual volunteerism, but rigorous systemic critique and agendas for social change. This process requires rejecting and critiquing the mainstream and popular uses and assumptions behind service learning. And, while this is in no way comparable to the activities of Latin American liberation theologists such as Romero, I am, nonetheless reminded of Shaw's words: "There is danger in such activity; and where there is danger, there is hope" (Preface).