Service Learning: Biblical Scholars in the Church

In our faculty seminar today, the discussion has been about the nature and purpose of “service learning” with respect to the goals of higher education and the vocation of the professor.

That is a lot of moving parts, so let me explain: professors are called to “teach” students, but there is a big debate about what and how they should teach. Stanley Fish has argued famously that professors should teach only within the narrow and objective confines of disciplinary specialties, and “save the world on their own time.” On the other hand, proponents of “critical pedagogy” argue that higher education has a responsibility to engage political and cultural issues for the purpose of shaping students as moral citizens.

“Service learning” is often a key part of critical pedagogy. By sending students into communities to work and learn, the professor can reinforce and deepen the issues covered in the classroom. This applies most naturally to fields such as poverty studies, social sciences, and other disciplines that directly engage life-as-lived.

Academic Biblical Scholarship

So, how does this relate to my own speciality, to biblical scholarship? One clear connection is that the Bible consistently calls for justice and social transformation. Is the job of the biblical studies professor to inculcate those (biblical) values of justice, righteousness, mercy, and love? If so, acts of service and compassion in one’s community can be a powerful part of that process.

I have sympathy for Fish’s perspective in some ways, however. Considering that I teach in an undergraduate non-religious institution, and not a seminary, what is the connection between biblical studies as history (or history of ideas) and the study of the Bible as an ongoing ethical and religious concern? I would argue that my role in the classroom is closer to Fish’s perspective, at least on these larger issues of social justice. I can teach about the prophetic message of Jesus or Amos without having students actually working for justice in the community. I think that they (and I) should personally find ways to do that, but such is not, narrowly speaking part, of the the academic field of biblical studies.

And Yet

In the “service learning” literature, there are distinctions drawn among service activities, internships, and field work. At the graduate school level, the placement of seminarians into local churches clearly fits this model. These interns/field-ed placements do have things to offer to the local congregations, but the primary benefit of the program is the education and vocational reflection of the student. The church patiently enables a student to preach awkward sermons and to stumble through pastoral visits so that the student (and in the long term, the Church) benefits. I just do not see an analogue for this on the undergraduate level.

My hesitation, however, is that the purely academic teaching of the Bible will become stale or disconnected from reality if confined within the “ivory tower.” How to bring realism and critical engagement into an academic study of the Bible? When I teach on Amos, I sometimes tell the story of working at a “pay day loan” business for brief period in college. That real-life experience enhances my understanding of Amos’s invective against lenders who cheat the poor for their own benefit. Do the students benefit from my telling of that story? Would they not benefit even more if they volunteered with United Ministries and saw first-hand the effects of predatory lending on the poor?