Faculty & Staff

Service Learning, Learning Service: They’re Not The Same?


“When is the right time to exit a friendship? When is the right time to tell friends that we no longer intend to visit them or enjoy their company or walk and eat and talk with them?”

That’s Marianne Kent-Stoll’s indirect answer to critics of service learning abroad. Idyllwild Arts Academy’s Assistant Head of School knows what people like Daniela Papi (Link) say about “voluntourism” or “sympathy tourism.” Working for several days in a developing country because you feel sorry for its people is a form of tourism, a way to massage your bleeding heart while you pass through as swiftly as any other tourist, glancing at the country’s surface and not getting to know it well enough to make a real difference.

Marianne agrees that development work “is incredibly complex,” therefore “poorly conceived projects can even create a culture of dependency, cause divisiveness within and between communities, and disrupt local labor markets” (Link). Some economists argue that trying to help poor countries might hurt them (Link), while “good intentions are not enough” (Link) has become axiomatic among development professionals.

Then don’t pass through swiftly and don’t glance at the surface, Marianne says. She’s led annual visits to one Tanzanian village since 2008, studying the community while building friendships. She’s there now (with thirty volunteers), overseeing completion of a modern birth center and reconstruction of a primary school, and planning a water system for a parched area outside the village.

Criticism of good intentions and the experience of on-the-ground development workers like Marianne are reflected in the new “learning service” movement. Flipping “service learning” upside-down demands that “travelers learn about the context, issues, and people of the place they visit, and engage with the necessary research and questioning to seek out responsible organizations with which to partner” (Link).

Short of bumping into someone like Marianne, The Learning Service Movement can help you find opportunities if you’re pondering a switch from service learning to learning service.