x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Community service should not be an imaginary utopia

Research looking at the effectiveness of service learning generally finds that it promotes positive attitudes and social development.

In 1516, the word utopia entered the English language to describe a place or situation that was perfectly ideal, although practically improbable. The word is derived from classical Greek and translates as "no place".

Sir Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII, coined this new term and used it as the title for a book about an imaginary land, a "no place" called Utopia. In More's mythical Utopia, founded by the great Utopus, gold and silver had no value, there were no wages and all people worked together to serve each other's needs. Community service was limited to a maximum of six hours per day, leaving ample time for study. For Utopians, the highest happiness in life came from improving their minds.

But community service and the improvement of the mind are by no means mutually incompatible. Within some Islamic traditions, service towards others, khidma, is viewed as crucial to self-improvement. The 13th century Persian poet Abu Muhammad Shirazi, better known as Saadi of Shiraz, made this point in his poem Bustan, "The Orchard": "The way to improvement is not other than the service of the people."

In recent years this idea of development through service, or "service learning" as it is now called, has gained momentum within many higher educational institutions in the West. In the language of contemporary higher education, service learning is described as an experience where students participate in an activity designed to meet a community need. It is meant to go beyond internships or sporadic volunteer work. The emphasis is on the development of civic responsibility as much as, if not more than, the acquisition of specific career skills.

Research looking at the effectiveness of service learning generally finds that it promotes positive attitudes and social development. In one controlled study, students assigned to service learning sections even had better exam results.

So what might service learning courses in the UAE look like? Perhaps one course might get business majors to organise a series of workshops aimed at young entrepreneurs to address unemployment.

Another example might involve nutrition and health programmes in high schools. This would be a small but perhaps significant contribution towards addressing issues of childhood obesity and related illnesses. Similarly, environmental projects could focus on cleaning up polluted areas and preventing future problems.

Students in psychology or counselling could work towards putting together a psychological well-being programme to arrest the World Health Organisation's predicted rise in depressive illnesses over the next two decades. Perhaps these same students could become involved in a visiting programme at local hospitals.

These are just a few ideas, some of which have probably already been undertaken or are in the pipeline. However, taking a comprehensive service learning approach could institutionalise these types of programmes, giving them staying power. Successive classes of students could keep them alive. That would also require the commitment of the major academic institutions, faculty, broader student body and of course partners in the community.

Picture a place where students learnt valuable life lessons, acquired complex skills, cultivated civic responsibility, improved exam performance and at the same time contributed towards addressing the community's most pressing challenges. Sir Thomas More did not describe the universities of Utopia, but I'm sure service learning would fit well with his vision.


Dr Justin Thomas is an assistant professor in the department of natural science and public health at Zayed University