What is service learning and why must it be defended? Many have come to view service at BC as something that has devolved into competition and résumé-building. As someone who has been involved with the PULSE program for three years, I can assure you that the true Jesuit-ideals of service and loving thy neighbor are very much intact at BC.
In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle proclaims that “what we have to learn to do, we learn by doing.” This is what encapsulates PULSE. Founded in 1969, the PULSE program, in my opinion, embodies an invaluable form of education. While exposing students to philosophical and theological traditions in the classroom, the PULSE program also sends its students (numbered close to 500 this year, a record-high) to engage in service at one of the 55 community partners in the greater Boston area with which the program is affiliated. PULSE students will spend approximately three-and-a-half hours a week in their classroom, but 10-12 hours commuting and engaging in service. As such, PULSE students tend to complete most of their learning outside of the classroom. The class will present difficult questions, including what does it mean to be human? To fall in love or become a friend? To live in a just society? The answers will not be found in books or on a chalkboard. But many times, hints will be discovered at their service sites. PULSE students will see the eyes of a neglected child and begin to understand compassion. They will hear the voice of a suicidal person over a telephone line and begin to grasp the importance of compassionate listening. They will touch the hands of a person suffering from homelessness as they serve them a warm meal, and begin to comprehend the necessity of community and solidarity.
Or maybe they won’t. Because I am not going to pretend that PULSE changes the lives of all of its students. Many students will enroll to fulfill their Philosophy and Theology requirements, reflect back on their service as a fun experience, move on to graduate and will not engage in any more service. But for some students, they can do anything but move on; I have read about and interacted with countless students and teachers who believe in the value of the PULSE program and are dedicated to seeing it continue.
So why must PULSE’s service learning be defended? The major criticisms I have come across when concerning the program essentially fall into two categories: (1) The program creates a feeling of supremacy amongst its members, and (2) it is ineffective as it does not teach students how to engage in actual societal structural change.
Let me begin by saying that PULSE does not teach elitism. PULSE students learn how to serve others, not how to “help” people, and this is a very important distinction to make. We are taught to put others first without putting ourselves on a pedestal. Through consistent service over the course of the year, PULSE students learn how to better understand where the people they serve are coming from, and additionally how to cast away their prejudices and judgements. There are times when PULSE students may be perceived as being ‘elitist’ because they go out of their way to speak about the program to a great extent, but their service is important to talk about. How else would BC students begin to comprehend the real problems in our own backyard?
I once spoke with a PULSE professor who likened the program to the Greek myth of Sisyphus. The Greek Gods had condemned him to an eternity of rolling an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down over and over again. Service through PULSE is somewhat similar. This year marks the 47th year of PULSE students engaging in the program, and yet many of the problems we have been exposed to are still very much prevalent. So what does the program actually achieve? It is something that is impossible to truly measure with any sort of rubric. But I will cycle back to Aristotle’s idea of “learning by doing,” meaning that through our actions, we learn more about ourselves and the real world. Yes, the program is designed so that students may cultivate a better critical understanding of privilege and oppression while further demonstrating moral development through a growth in compassion. But there is more; PULSE students learn to confront themselves. When they are exposed to the challenges of the real world they will be forced to ask; “Is this really the world I want to live in?” Some will go to unbelievable lengths to answer that question. The program is not designed for students to restructure society. Instead, students learn to restructure themselves. The achievements of PULSE are thus personable and subjective – it is the students, then, who determine what PULSE stands for.