Weigart and Crews’ Teaching for Justice by Gail Presbey

Presbey, Gail (Univ. of Detroit – Mercy). “Just Education: A Review of Kathleen Maas Weigert and Robin J. Crews, eds. Teaching for Justice: Concepts and Models for Service-Learning in Peace Studies. Washington, D.C.: American Association for Higher Education, 1999.” CPP Newsletter Vol. 23, Nos. 1-2 (Spring-Fall 2003).

This book is filled with good practical advice on how to use service learning to help students gain a deeper understanding of the field of peace and justice studies. In what follows, I will highlight the key ideas that it conveys and conclude with an evaluation. As Weigart explains in the introduction, the goal of a peace and justice course is not just to master certain materials, but to help students become committed to action that will make the world a better place (9).

The service-learning placements make students cross over from theory into practice, possibly starting a lifelong good habit. Peace and Justice studies is not a “value free” discipline; rather, it is in favor of peace, justice, equality, and the meeting of people’s basic needs (12). Weigart cautions that the term “service” sometimes carries the connotation of “noblesse oblige” (16).

So Elise Boulding begins with an important clarification in the preface: she argues that service learning should be an experience of partnering with communities, not a case of do-gooders who go out and give and expect to receive nothing in return. Michael Schratz and Rob Walker argue that “People learn from the experience of being placed in unfamiliar settings,” especially when they are expected to become competent at some task. Disrupting students’ lives can cause learning to happen more rapidly. People are “polyphasic” in their learning, which means that they learn more than one thing at a time. Asking someone to leave the comfort of their own social setting and encounter a new culture or micro-culture amounts to encouraging them to become ethnographic researchers of sorts.

While their “plunge” into the new context can never be complete, since they will always be seen as outsiders at the margins of the culture, they can still take the role of “legitimate peripheral participation” just as ethnographers do. They will notice many small things that are different in the new context in which they have placed themselves. They will have to read people’s facial and body gestures to try to grasp power dynamics between the people they meet and work with. But, upon first exposure, students may not always correctly grasp these things.

Like travelers, they may not know when they have acted inappropriately, been misunderstood, or transgressed defined boundaries, until after it happens. Being put into a new context also challenges our own self-identity, as we notice different things about ourselves than we otherwise would. Students might feel forlorn as they long for more familiar surroundings, but despite their temporary discomfort, real learning can begin to take place.

Schratz and Walker argue that people learn more in “critical incidents”; which are situations that happen to themselves, often connected to loss, and requiring readjustment; than they do under the conditions of their normal routines. While this sounds painful, it can also have a transforming effect, since it requires that people rethink issues central to their lives (33-38). Schratz and Walker explain that students start out service learning from the position of incompetence, unconsciously or consciously. They will hopefully move to competence in the new setting, but likewise, their competence may be conscious (as they struggle to find a way in which to fit in and work), or unconscious (if they just happen to fit in without being quite aware of how).

The authors suggest that service learning should become a collaborative effort between students rather than an individual one. Students need each other to keep one another from tumbling from the heights of idealism and sinking into cynicism. Their attempts at service might lead them to confront the, “emotional warfare, naked ambition, and exploitation found in some volunteer agencies dedicated to radical change” (42). Students naively entering into service work may not be prepared for such possibilities. It is important for students to process these insights together. They need to publicly question the institutions they are working within, themselves, and their teachers. Encouraging them to do so requires that teachers also take risks, but according to the authors, there is no shortcut to learning.

Experience, and group reflection on the experience, is necessary to learning (39-44). David Whitten Smith and Michael Hasl continue in this line of pedagogical thinking by drawing upon Paulo Freire, whose idea of “revolutionary praxis” involves: 1) Changing your world view, 2) Broadening narrow frameworks, and 3) Recognizing people are active agents in history, and becoming one yourself! (55)

They describe the dialectical “circle of praxis” as having four stages. First, there is the personal experience of inserting oneself into a situation of poverty, violence, or injustice. The authors note that students must share with each other their experiences of those who are marginalized, to ensure that such experiences do not simply reinforce stereotypes. Studetns are asked to write out their expectations ahead of time, and then to check their current experiences against their original expectations.

Secondly, they engage in the descriptive analysis of how the culture of the host organization historically and currently operates in its social, economic and political context. This could include the questions: “Who is making the decisions here? Who is benefitting from the decisions? Who is paying the cost?” Students could also ask, “Why does such poverty exist?.Why can’t we organize our society to meet everyone’s basic needs? Is there some larger flaw in our systems that defeats our efforts to organize,” for instance, jobs for all who need them?

Thirdly, they work out a normative analysis of the situation, which identifies the moral values at stake, and imagines how the situation could be changed to be more morally satisfying. The authors suggest assigning students to write a Utopia. They argue that “Utopias help people break out of the ordinary, recognize the damage caused by structures normally taken for granted, and see new possibilities.” After that assignment, students are then asked to write a “Possitopia,” which is a realistically achievable improvement of current reality.

Fourthly, they develop an action plan, which involves identifying the skills, strategies, and policies needed to make the desired transformation. Students should do something constructive to help ameliorate the situation in which they were placed (57-61). Sue Marullo, Mark Lance, and Henry Schwarz argue that service learning is especially important at Jesuit universities.

In 1995, the 34th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus insisted that every Jesuit ministry, including universities, support social justice. This can be done in several ways: “a) direct service and accompaniment of the poor; b) developing an awareness of the demands of justice and the sense of social responsibility necessary to achieve it; and c) participating in social mobilization for the creation of a more just social order.” (48) The Jesuit approach emphasizes how peace and justice depend upon each other.

Positive peace (not just temporary cessation of hostilities) requires social structures that are fundamentally just. Service learning can help students gain insights into the underlying causes of social problems – problems which, when magnified, often lead to war and violence.

Teaching for Justice is filled with practical advice about how to create guidelines, assignments, and evaluations of service learning. Faculty from Georgetown University explain that their senior theses projects in service learning include empirical research, normative reflection, action programs, and conceptual analyses (50).

Robin Crews outlines basic procedural guidelines for his courses in nonviolence and these seem like they would be effective in any course that relies heavily on discussion. Firstly, we must respect each other and therefore agree to disagree. Secondly, we must listen carefully to what others in the class say. (Perhaps the counseling strategy of paraphrasing what we think the other person said, and asking them about our accuracy before responding to their remarks, could help us to be sure that we really did understand the other person’s point). Thirdly, we must seek to understand each other and therefore check our immediate impulse to prove others wrong and ourselves right. Fourthly, we agree not to interrupt others (30).

What can peace studies accomplish? Robin Crews shares his experience as founding executive director of the Peace Studies Association. He admits with seeming dejection that Peace Studies has not even sufficiently affected academia, let alone the world. Financial constraints and reactionary downsizing have resulted in dwindling support for such programs (24-5). His concerns were echoed throughout the book.

Faculty at Georgetown University note that they constantly face the problem of limited resources and challenges to the academic legitimacy of their programs (52). Faculty at Roehampton Institute note that colleagues often think of service learning as “lightweight, soft-headed, or escapist” (103). With these kinds of financial and ideological attacks leveled against Peace Studies, it is a wonder that we still have opportunities to teach Peace Studies. And, yet, the need for courses such as these has not diminished.

The expansion of the military budget and increase in interventionary wars is rather an indication that peaceful alternatives are being neglected, and that they are now more needed than ever. With the increase in the military budget comes a decrease in funds for programs to help our nation’s poor, and hence, also, a need for more volunteers. As poverty increases there are more opportunities for students to witness first-hand the suffering of others and to be of service to them, while simultaneously reflecting on the social conditions which foster such disparities in distribution of wealth.

Peace Studies courses, tailored as service learning courses, are therefore especially imperative at this point. The authors of this collection have charted helpful road maps, and the strength of these essays lies in the careful attention given to the stages of emotion and insight through which students pass during their service learning experiences. The guidelines provided on how teachers can shape assignments so as to avoid common pitfalls are also particularly valuable to the beginning teacher.

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