Race, the college classroom, and service learning: A practitioner’s tale

Race, the college classroom, and service learning: A practitioner’s tale

Philipsen, Maike Ingrid

This “practitioner’s tale” is one college professor’s account of how service learning might serve as a tool to facilitate meaningful discussions on race in an undergraduate course on Social Foundations of Education. It describes the dynamics that tend to unfold in the author’s experiences whenever “race” rises to the surface of class discussions and analyzes the impact of service learning on students’ thinking about race. The article discusses both the benefits and potential pitfalls of service learning and makes suggestions as to how to help students “see color” without the creation or reinforcement of prejudice and unfounded generalizations.

Race and ethnicity continue to matter in education just as they do in society at large and, accordingly, it can be argued that teachers must see color and culture in order to be effective (Ladson-Billings, 1994). As Linda Valli (1995) points out, however, the popular “seeing color slogan” contradicts another belief widespread in educational institutions: You have to be “color-blind” in order to be fair and see students as individuals rather than stereotypical members of a racial or ethnic group. The tension created by these two, mutually exclusive ideas reflects a dilemma typical of race relations as they play out not just inside but beyond the schools. The implication for teacher educators is that they ought to prepare future teachers who are “race conscious” in the sense that they are able to see the impact of race and ethnicity on education without stereotyping. The following “practitioner’s tale” delineates how this tension manifests itself in a college classroom. In particular, it discusses the possible role of one form of experiential learning (service learning) in the process of doing both-talking about race (thus “seeing color”) without reinforcing or even creating new prejudices. In other words, the question addressed in this article is: How can service learning serve as a tool to facilitate meaningful discussions on race in the college classroom? The first section describes dynamics in the college classroom that tend to unfold in this author’s experience whenever “race” surfaces in class discussions. Subsequent sections of the article discuss the impact of service learning on students’ thinking about race. Both benefits and potential pitfalls of service learning are analyzed, followed by suggestions of how to maximize the former and avoid the latter.

Definition of Terms

Ethnicity can be defined as cultural characteristics shared by a group of people, including religion, ancestry, national origin, and language. Members of an ethnic group may be able to trace their roots to a particular ethnic background or a combination of ethnic backgrounds (Bennett deMarrais & LeCompte, 1995). Even people of different ethnicities-Irish Americans, Italian Americans, or Polish Americans-are seen as belonging to the same race. Race, however, is best understood as a social construction that, as scientists have demonstrated, lacks any credible basis in biology. The construct continues to be important, however, because it powerfully defines a person’s social and professional opportunities, privileging some at the expense of others. Culture, furthermore, can be defined as unique ways of doing and thinking about things, including habits, norms, values, rituals, and shared understandings or expectations. Race and ethnicity both have often been used synonymously with culture, as if membership in a racial or ethnic category automatically produces a singular set of cultural idiosyncracies, which it certainly does not. Yet, both race and ethnicity tend to have cultural consequences. Just as membership in a particular social class affects one’s quality of life, race and ethnicity shape people’s lives and encourage certain behaviors, mindsets, value systems-in other words, culture.

The Significance of Service Learning

Service learning is one form of experiential learning, an idea dating as far back as the progressive educator John Dewey (1938) who strongly advocated learning grounded in experience. Learning, from this vantage point, is much more successfully accomplished if based on real-life experiences and “active learning” rather than merely theoretical or “book learning.” A vast collection of literature argued and sought to demonstrate the same point. Piaget (1952), for example, theorized that a person’s intelligence is a product of experience accumulated over time. More recently, Kolb’s (1984) “learning circles” represent learning as a process during which experience, reflective observation, abstrafet conceptualization, and active experimentation occur. Service learning, along the same lines, serves as a tool to enhance academic learning. Students simply learn more effectively, it has been claimed, if they can apply course content to the real world and/or compare literature and theory with their observations in real-life settings. It is key, in other words, to integrate carefully organized service activities into the academic curriculum.

Service learning, however, is not just about academic learning. An important goal, instead, lies in what could be called “values education,” the enhancement of civic responsibility and citizen skills. Students grow as persons, become personally enriched and mature because they are made to see the world from perspectives different from their own. The role of the service learning educator has been described as not only fostering students’ intellectual but also values development (Cone & Harris, 1996). The “father” of modern era service learning, Benjamin Barber (1992), sees the idea of “democratic citizenship” as being at the heart of successful service learning (p. 230-261). He refers to people’s “habits of the heart” (Bellah, Madson, Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985), or their desire for community as a central human need to be met through meaningful community service. According to Barber (1992), service learning “hopes to make civic education and social responsibilty core subjects of high school and university education, and in so doing to help rehabilitate schools as successful learning communities” (pp. 250-251). A service learning course, accordingly, should cover vital civic issues, including ethnicity and race. One of its principles is:

[R]espect for the full diversity and plurality of American life is possible only when students have an opportunity to interact outside of the classroom in ways that are, however, the subject of scrutiny and open discussion in the classroom. An experiential learning process that includes both classroom learning and group work outside of the classroom has the greatest likelihood of impacting on student ignorance, intolerance, and prejudice, (p. 255)

With service learning programs and initiatives growing over the last two decades or so, proponents of service learning increasingly realized the need to provide “hard data” to demonstrate that service learning is more than a good idea because it actually produces measurable results. Examples of such research include Boss’ (1994) study of how community service work helps students’ moral development, and Giles and Eyler’s (1994) research on how service learning experiences impact the development of college students as participating citizens in their community. Summarizing the literature on the benefits of service learning, Eyler, Giles, and Grey (1999) argue that students’ academic learning tends to be positively impacted by the practical application of the theory learned in the classroom, and that their sense of personal efficacy is often enhanced and interpersonal and communication skills improved. Service learning helps reduce stereotypes and contributes to cultural and racial understanding as well as improves citizenship skills and faculty-student relationships (Eyler et al., 1999).

Applying ideas derived from the literature to my own teaching, I would argue that service learning is being used in my classes in order to more successfully address questions of race and diversity. Students do not just read about the importance of race in shaping educational institutions, the historical implications of race, segregation and desegregation, or how race continues to influence such practices as tracking and ability grouping, to name a few topics. Rather, they are required to interact with educators and children of racial backgrounds different from their own. These real-life experiences, in turn, serve as launching pads for reflections on the role of race in schooling that are more meaningful to the students and have a far greater impact than any theoretical discussion could ever accomplish.


As suggested in the title, this article is to be understood as a “practitioner’s tale” rather than a systematic research study in a more traditional sense. It is a personal account, based on observations, conversations, reflections, notes, and analysis of student-generated service learning evaluations. The approach is qualitative in nature, which means that by definition the findings are not meant to be universalizable-a charcteristic some scholars perceive to be a limitation of qualitative research generally, while others see it as part of the design. This article, in short, issues an invitation to other college educators to “compare notes” on what happens when race becomes a topic of discussion in class and, more specifically, what role service learning might play in helping students to be both color-blind and color conscious in the best sense. Furthermore, this article is designed to provide a personal perpective on what educators can actually do in their own classrooms as a response to complicated and unproductive race relations as described by Philipsen (2003), Turner (2003), and Hill (2003).

The following reflections are based on eight years of teaching one to two sections per Fall, Spring, and Summer semester of a Social Foundations course offered at a large urban state university (pseudonym: USU) in the Southeastern part of the United States. The average class size is 35 students during the academic year and approximately 25 students on average during the summer bringing the total number of students taught in this class and by this author to approximately 600. This particular course is a USU requirement for all future teachers, counselors, and school administrators who typically take the class in their junior or senior year before they enroll in their Master’s degree programs. Teacher education at USU is provided through an extended five-year program at the completion of which students receive their undergraduate degree as well as their Master’s degree of Teaching.

As in most teacher preparation programs around the nation, also reflected at USU, the vast majority (approximately 25 out of 35) students are White middle-class females and, consequently, this article is based primarily on their experiences in the Social Foundations classes. The minority consists of African American females, White males, and occasionally an African American male, Hispanic or Asian male or female. Most students are in their 20s, grew up in middle-class suburbs and have not spent much or any time in urban schools or communities. Most are idealistic young people who claim to have chosen teaching because they “love kids” and “enjoy that light bulb going on in a child’s eyes”-all despite the warnings of family and friends that teaching is extraordinarily challenging “these days.” They agree that they “certainly did not choose teaching for the money.” They are motivated to “make a difference in a child’s life,” and convinced that they will give their best regardless of the child’s background or perceived potential.

It should be mentioned that I am a White 40-year old female, born and raised in Germany where I lived until my mid-20s. My own background tends to matter in the classes I teach. Students, it seems, perceive me to be somewhat of an outsider regarding questions of race, especially as the issue pertains to the United States. As an “outsider,” I lack the personal baggage that comes with generations of complicated and painful race relations that weigh heavily on their own families. The outsider status makes me “neutral,” a fact I use to ask questions about race unencumbered by years of socialization into this sensitive issue.


Throughout the course, the issue of race routinely surfaces in discussions involving school desegregation, multicultural education, or equality of opportunity. Particularly in large classes, students find it challenging to candidly talk about race and, at least initially, they hesitate to initiate the discussion. Race is a topic that threatens their comfort zones and keeps them guarded. A few react with aggression, almost all are tense. Some White students argue positions like: “Yes, slavery was terrible, but it’s been a long time, and now all people are recognized as equal. Black people ought to stop making excuses and use the opportunities we all have. I’m tired of being blamed for what happened generations ago.” Another “White” response is: “Minorities continue to be discriminated against. We are all racist in some way and need to do something about that.” African American students’ responses tend to fall into one of four categories: they are silent, angry, activist, or illusionary. The angry voices sound something like: “You White people don’t know what you’re talking about and have no idea what it means to be Black. You’ll never understand, no matter how hard you try.” Activists agree with the White students who argue that racism continues to exist and needs to be dismantled; equality has not yet been achieved. The illusionary stance echoes the opinion expressed by White students that oppression has long disappeared, equal opportunities fully exist, and Black people can “make it” just like any person in America who works hard enough.

The pedagogical challenges in the classroom lie in creating the trust necessary for an open conversation about race. The task is to mediate without smothering differences of opinion, and to help students recognize that conflict can be used productively to generate insights and deepen understanding. Some students are inclined to vent their anger and antagonize their peers while others embrace total relativism or “absolutophobia” as Simon (1997, p. 85) calls it. They embrace an excessively tolerant worldview based on the belief that people have no right to judge the beliefs, values, or choices of others, no matter how frivolous or perverted.

In order to initiate and maintain a meaningful dialogue about race in class, several strategies have proven to be rather effective, most of them based on common sense. For one, instead of introducing topics related to race at the beginning of the semester, these discussions are saved until a sense of community, mutual respect, and trust have been established in the classroom. Since issues involving race tend to be controversial, students need to feel that it is safe to speak up, and able to trust that it is not only acceptable but also encouraged to disagree with other positions. It is emphasized at the beginning of conversations involving race that a classroom striving to resemble a “marketplace of ideas” has to be based on open discourse. The classroom needs to be a place where conflict is used productively and indicates passionate engagement. Additionally, the class is reminded of the courage required of persons to make themselves vulnerable, and that students are by no means alone in shying away from a discourse the nation as a whole struggles to undertake in a productive fashion. The instructor must be highly directive in ensuring everyone’s opportunity to speak, while no one is forced to do so. Just as in discussions of other issues, interruptions, personal attacks, or domination of the conversation are not tolerated. Unlike other debates, however, discussions of race warrant introductory remarks emphasizing how empathy and good listening skills are particularly important preconditions for a constructive conversation about the meanings of race and ethnicity in education. Another helpful pedagogical device is a racially mixed panel of students who start the conversation by presenting prepared statements that express personal experiences they had with issues involving race. Panel discussions are generally effective in helping to pave the way to fruitful classroom conversations because students generally admire their peers for the courage to speak publicly about a difficult topic. Once the “ice is broken,” it gets easier to talk.

Service Learning: Rationale and Benefits

In order not only to enrich the discourse about race and to better link theory and practice in general, numerous Social Foundations courses at USU have been taught as service learning classes over the last few years. Service learning can be defined as:

. . . a credit-bearing educational experience in which students participate in an organized service activity that meets identified community needs and reflect on the service activity in such a way as to gain further understanding of course content, a broader appreciation of the discipline, and an enhanced sense of civic responsibility. (Bringle & Hatcher, 1995, p. 112)

Most Social Foundations students engage in their service activities at Bonhill Elementary School (pseudonym), a public institution located close to the USU campus. Some students elect other elementary or a particular middle or high school. The majority of schools involved are inner-city schools with predominantly African American populations, typical of the city’s segregated school system. The city school population is approximately 95% African American while the surrounding county schools are approximately 85% White.

Based on my observations and on student reports and self-evaluations, the Social Foundations course provides numerous examples for the previously mentioned benefits of service learning. Students’ academic learning is enhanced because class discussions about topics such as tracking and ability grouping can be compared with observations in the “real world” of schools. Social Foundations students are encouraged to interview teachers and school administrators about the rationale behind tracking and the educators’ experiences with sorting and classification practices. The students’ newly gained perspectives steeped in practioners’ knowledge are then compared with research findings and theories.

Through their service learning activities, the students are challenged to make sense of the tension between research and reality, theory on best practices and established routines. For instance, much of the scholarly literature written about the issue is critical of tracking and ability grouping, and yet service learning makes it clear to the college students that such practices are very common in K-12 schools. They wonder why schools do not work necessarily according to what seems best for children. They struggle to find out what stands in the way of the best education society could possibly offer. Such questions naturally surface and beg to be explored once the students compare the research and their personal observations in the schools.

Service learning creates a need to know, a desire to make sense of contradictions and to explain how schools work. Clearly, it serves as a vehicle to complement theory with practice. More fundamentally, service learning is frequently the first experience students have with K-12 schools since graduating from high school themselves. It gives them a chance to critically explore their intent to become an educator, often before they enter the Master’s of Teaching program at USU. The following student responses to an end-of-semester questionnaire illustrate the benefits:

It was a great hand-on [sic] way to apply textbook knowledge to the real world.

It was a very good experience. It will help you to find out if you want to continue your major in education and apply what you read and study to real life.

Service Learning gives an added perspective to you. It will help you find out if teaching is the right avenue for you. It also helps you connect class and service together.

Beneficial way to implement book learning into the “real world.”

Teacher education classes, especially Social Foundations courses, are frequently criticized for being aloof and theoretical, unconnected to the “real world of schooling,” and consequently of limited value for future practitioners. It has “always seemed fashionable and politically expedient to criticize the preparation of schoolteachers. . . . Teachers themselves are critical of their professional preparation, citing too much theory in pedagogical coursework and not enough real-world, practice-based skills” (Symms Gallagher & Bailey, 2000, p. 11). As the student quotes above show, opportunities to spend time in public school classrooms via service learning addresses this problem by adding a sense of reality to the college experience, something that is difficult to create in a traditional classroom. Service learning does not, however, simply substitute theoretical learning with a field experience, thus potentially contributing to yet another frequently voiced criticism of teacher education programs-anti-intellectualism. Because service learning includes a strong reflection component that encourages students to connect theory and practice it goes beyond mere observation and gives students opportunities for a richer analysis of the literature.

Another growth area lies in deepening the understanding of issues related to race and culture. At the beginning of the semester, before any discussions involving race, most White students consider themselves to be color-blind. Initially, it appears as if race or ethnicity do not matter and should not be discussed in class generally, and in the context of service learning in particular. Soon students realize their own biases and prejudices, however, as it becomes obvious that a number of students associate inner-city schools as being predominately Black, poverty ridden, and crime stricken. Furthermore, they have reservations about going to inner-city schools and fear for their safety. Parents will occasionally discourage their children from participating in service learning activities in the city, especially at the high school level. Through service learning and exposure to actual inner-city schools, however, students routinely reap learning benefits. They confront, for instance, the fact that segregation continues to exist, not only in neighborhoods, but also in the public school system. Movements to desegregate the schools no longer seem “historical,” “abstract,” or “quaint,” but instead relevant to this day, perhaps more than ever before. White students, who may have previously had the privilege of ignoring the issue of color, comprehend that race still matters in shaping the reality of societal institutions, including the schools.

Students who lack first-hand experiences with urban schooling begin to see the multi-faceted nature of inner-city schools. They are forced to question long-held stereotypes which, absent of confrontations with reality, often accompanied their lives outside of the city. Service learning helps to make the strange somewhat more familiar and, in turn, the familiar strange. In that sense, it is a powerful exercise that teaches about the dangers of cultural bias and hasty judgments of any kind, particularly those involving other people’s children, their traditions, and lifestyles. In the process, students are forced out of their comfort zones and encouraged to question their views of the world, as the following student quotes illustrate:

Eye opening to the lack of basic knowledge that some [elementary] students have and the disparities in equality.

A chance to see the real world; a chance to question your biases; a chance to experience different cultures and different lifestyles; a chance to make a difference in the lives of kids who don’t have the opportunities that I have had.

The experience was both enlightening and frustrating. Enabled me to learn more about myself and about how inner city schools function.

Students address directly how service learning has helped them replace prejudice with a more realistic image of urban schooling. They recount how the “all bad” stereotype of urban schools has been questioned and how service learning led them to confront their misconceptions; it also made them feel more at ease in inner-city schools. They found much of the negative stereotyping to be false and reported “encountering less behavior problems than expected” or finding “that urban schools aren’t all bad but they do have problems that need to be attended to.” One student remarked that while “there is a lot of room for improvement, the school situation is not as bad as readings let one believe.”

Based on the feedback of those served by the college students, namely the students, teachers, and administrators of the public schools, service learning is perceived as an asset that provides desperately needed “extra hands and bodies.” Bonhill Elementary faculty and administrators, for instance, praise the support they receive from highly motivated USU students who tutor individual children, assist classroom teachers, and volunteer in the library and computer lab. Practitioners also appreciate the invitation to discuss questions prepared by the professor and raised in the college classroom, including: Are teachers professionals? Does race matter? Do teachers treat girls and boys differently? Is school funding equitable?


Service learning has great potential to enrich teaching by enhancing student learning both academically and personally. It invites innovation and shares with other experimental approaches to learning its process orientation, inductive nature, and hands-on combination of theory and practice. Service learning calls into question traditional characteristics of academia, for example top-down models of instruction, student passivity, compartmentalization of disciplines, and a strict division of theory and application. Specifically in regard to discussions of sensitive topics such as race and ethnicity, service learning may serve as an eye-opening and even transformative learning experience. Despite these strengths, however, service learning poses its own challenges as well. The following sections discuss both the potential risks of service learning and possible ways of addressing them.

Misinterpretations of First Impressions

Service learning classes may not last long enough to lead students to question deeply ingrained beliefs and stereotypes; instead such classes may occasionally reinforce them. Given the short duration of their service work, students run the risk of forming understandings of urban schools that are just as inadequate as the ones of students who never set foot into an inner-city school. In fact, service learning may even lead them to mistake their experiences as being far more profound than they could possibly be. Student statements indicate such dangers. One student said, for instance, that s/he now has “a greater understanding of the lack of support the [public school] students get from their families and communities,” although the college students did not have much contact with families and/or communities. Another student reported: “It helped me to know that these children have lots of needs to be met and they require a lot of support,” a statement that casts inner-city students wholesale as needy and deficient. Students engaged in dichotomous thinking that pitted urban against non-urban schools, as illustrated in statements such as “I think even more needs to be done to get these students up to the same level as those in non-urban schools” or “I knew they [urban schools] were pretty bad.” Service learning might cause students to draw premature conclusions based on a relatively short time spent in an urban school. The result would be erroneous conclusions that suggest “these children” lack parental and community support, have special needs, are not on the same level as non-urban students, or that their schools are simply “bad.”

To prevent such misconceptions, instructors of service learning courses ought to delineate very clearly the limits of the course. It needs to be discussed that students might be tempted to rush to unwarranted conclusions based on first impressions. Specific exercises can be effective eye-openers and prevent narrow interpretations of new experiences. In one of my classes, for example, I asked a group of students to prepare a skit of a fictitious society in which women seem to be subservient when compared to men. The women kneel on the floor while the men sit on chairs, they serve the food, and they go barefoot while men wear shoes. When asked to interpret the play, students routinely jump to the conclusion that they just witnessed an extremely patriarchal society. It is then explained to them that in the culture of the fictitious society they just saw portrayed, women are perceived as holy beings, pure, enlightened, and closer to the spirits than men. It is for these reasons that they are allowed to handle food and to touch the earth, to sit on it and walk barefoot. The exercise teaches, in short, that first impressions interpreted against the scaffolding of one’s own cultural frame of mind are easily misunderstood and wrongly judged.

Scholarly Voyeurism

Of similar concern is the possibility that service learning encourages a form of scholarly voyeurism. The College of Humanities and Sciences at USU requires its students to engage in an “urban experience”-that is students earn credits in courses that expose them to urban life. Some service learning courses meet this requirement that is based on the rationale that students benefit from experiences in urban spheres. Casting community involvement in terms of an urban experience, however, portrays the city as an exotic place rather than the natural extension of the campus. It invites students to go and look at a place that they are certain never to inhabit. Urban dwellers, particularly those who differ from the majority of faculty and students in terms of race, become an exotic species and, despite its geographical proximity to the university campus, the urban community is once again crafted as being different in some essential way.

In order to avoid thinking of this kind, a service learning class can build a bridge between the university community and the urban community it serves. If students spend a significant amount of time in the organization they serve and become increasingly familiar with its inner workings, their initial strangeness may gradually be replaced by connectedness and more intimate knowledge of a formerly alien environment. In classes involving student research projects, furthermore, a genuine effort to connect can be made by using an action research model. Students engage in researching questions that surface in the community and are articulated by community members rather than the students. USU students in a graduate course on urban schooling serve as an example for such an approach. For instance, upon request of an elementary school the students researched successful models of increasing parental involvement in school. Research projects of this nature have the potential to help students become invested in the school they serve and break out of an “us-versus-them” type of thinking.

“Improving Poor People”

Service learning and other community outreach efforts may inadvertently reinforce the notion of providing service to “improve poor people.” Thinking of this kind is neither new nor original. Social historian Michael Katz (1995) delineates the history of American welfare policies as primarily based upon the belief that in order to eradicate poverty, the character, morals, and behavior of the poor need to be improved. According to Katz, discussions of inner-city poverty invoke an “underclass” defined primarily by bad behavior rather than poverty, and deemed more in need of moral improvement than cash (p. 4). Efforts to improve poor people, however, have always awarded education a starring role (Katz, 1995). Applying Katz’ argument to service learning, one might ask to what extent community outreach programs are based upon similar assumptions, albeit without conscious knowledge or deliberate intent on the part of the participants.

The typical rhythm of university life provides good reasons to be concerned. For one, most everything in academia is based upon some arbitrary unit of analysis such as a quarter or a semester. Generally, things have to get done within the semester and, consequently, college educators are faced with the challenge of engaging students in community service projects that can be brought to closure after only a few months or weeks. Projects designed to enhance learning by serving the community, in other words, tend to be shortlived and more determined by the college calendar than the needs of the residents of those communities. Given these realities, it is more likely that college students attempt to improve poor people and their ways of doing things than engage in reforms that require long-term commitments. Examples of the former include parenting classes, teaching study skills to K-12 students, parental involvement programs, or short-term beautification and recycling projects. While projects of this kind are useful, service learning classes must address the implications of students’ engagement in short-term rather than long-term work that often merely scratches the surface of such insidious problems as racism or poverty.

Service learning courses should explicitly discuss what it means that students’ activities are not to be viewed as solutions to challenges communities face. Part of the students’ learning experience is the realization that they are dealing with the “tip of the iceberg,” an insight that might contribute to the desire to better understand root causes of societal problems as well as possibilities for long-term solutions. Exposure to ways of life defined by conditions very different from their own can make students aware of the existence of problems that can only be solved by the collective citizenry, a process from which neither students nor faculty members will be divorced by the end of the semester. The following student quote captures what a successful service learning course needs to teach in that respect:

I began to realize that helping individuals is only part of the solution. The scope of the problem was wider social problems, economic problems, social neglect and apathy, political neglect, and without addressing these, nothing could fix the problems individuals face. (as cited in Battistani, 1996, p. 96)

Service learning has to be more than an act in itself. A constructive way to conceptualize service learning might be to view it as an attempt to fulfill a short-term objective consistent with a long-term goal. To provide assistance to a classroom teacher in an underfunded school, for example, may be a humble act in comparison to what it takes to eradicate the “savage inequalities” that characterize public education. Nevertheless, it does not only have an immediate effect on one specific classroom but is likely to contribute to a student’s growing civic consciousness. The latter may, in turn, shape the student’s future teaching in significant ways. Benjamin Barber (1992), director of the Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy at Rutgers University and founder of a nationally acclaimed Service Learning Program, argues: “The successful resuscitation of the idea of service will not proceed far without the refurbishing of the theory and practice of democratic citizenship, which must in turn become any successful service program’s guiding spirit” (p. 236).


As appealing as the idea of “color blindness” in the classroom or society might be, it ignores a reality powerfully inscribed by the racial divide, as discussed by D. Philipsen (2003), Hill (2003), and Turner (2003). While being a scientifically dubious concept, race has shaped people’s identities and experiences in both the past and the present. Race, and the systematic discrimination of African Americans based on the idea, forced Black communities to muster a tremendous amount of resources and engagement in the attempt to ensure equal educational opportunities for their children, as illustrated by Turner in the case of Prince Edward County, Virginia. The color line matters in how Americans think about themselves and about others, their social relations, and about life’s opportunities, with “White privilege” being of central importance, as D. Philipsen argues. Nevertheless, much work remains to be done for people of all shades. Hill reminds us that neither Whites nor Blacks can rid themselves of the responsibility to create a future where skin color and opportunities are no longer correlated.

One step on the way to such a future might be to enhance prospective educators’ understanding of the relationships between race and education. As this article shows, race, ethnicity, color, and culture routinely surface throughout teacher preparation programs, posing the challenge of how to help students think about the issues and “see color” without perpetuating racial stereotypes. One pedagogical device potentially helpful in preparing effective educators in a multicultural world is service learning, a promising approach despite the fact that it, too, harbors perils. Focusing specifically on the experiences of White middle-class students who engaged in service learning activities in predominantly Black urban schools, this author contends that, if implemented well, students can learn much about themselves and the world through service learning. Not only does it enhance academic learning in general and help integrate theory and practice, in regard to race it specifically challenges students to question assumptions. For White students with middle-class suburban backgrounds, for example, this may be their first opportunity to work in an urban, predominantly African American school. Stereotypical categories start having names, faces, and stories, leading to new insights and educators better prepared for a diverse world. The short duration of a typical service learning experience, the semester format and other confines, however, carry the danger that students feel overconfident due to their newly gained “half-knowledge,” resulting in reinforced stereotypes and inappropriate generalizations. Inner-city populations, furthermore, may become “otherized” in the sense that they are viewed as somehow exotic and in need of particular attention or even improvement. To guard against these problems, instructors of service learning courses need to clearly delineate the limits of the course. They must challenge students to examine their assumptions and emphasize that a central goal of student growth lies in becoming part of a larger struggle for equal educational opportunities for all.


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MAIKE INGRID PHILIPSEN is Associate Professor of Foundations in the School of Education at the Virginia Commonwealth University; miphilip@vcu.edu. Her interests include sociology, philosophy and history of education, particularly issues relating to the equality of educational opportunities and school reform.

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