The Community as Campus — Sunday column, December 12, 2010
I am standing atop a narrow ten-storey building in downtown Trois Rivières, Québec., gazing out across the immensity of the St. Lawrence. My companions include Rémi Tremblay, a senior administrator at the Université du Québec à Trois Rivières, and Jeanne Charbonneau, who heads a social enterprise known as Vire-Vert. Jeanne is aglow with excitement. In a few days, when the deal closes, Vire-Vert will own this building, and in close partnership with UQTR, it will convert the old commercial block into Canada’s first Écol’Hôtel.
Canada’s first what?
In French, the name l’Écol’Hôtel is a triple play on words, a blend of “ecology,” and “école” (school) and “hotel.” This will be a deeply green, fully-functioning boutique hotel, and also a school for green management, particularly in the hospitality business. Its ecological commitment will permeate the organization – local organic food, fair trade coffee, furnishings by local artisans, a green rooftop garden tended by the workers’ children.
The Université du Québec à Trois Rivières will provide student placements, training for the workers, customers for the hotel and research for the management. And the two organizations together provide a stunning example of one of the hottest trends in higher education, “community service-learning,” or CSL.
The first CSL program in Canada began at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, NS, in1996. Psychology professor Ann Bigelow had been visiting Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, where a well-established CSL program sent students for week-long immersion experiences in Third World villages. Dr. Bigelow went to Nicaragua and Jamaica with Gettysburg CSL groups, and saw for herself that the visits were transformative educational experiences for students.
St. FX has a long tradition of community outreach and extension, but nothing in its undergraduate program expressed those values. Dr. Bigelow and a few like-minded colleagues set out to change that, incorporating CSL into individual credit courses as well as immersion experiences.
Today, about 25% of St. FX students participate in CSL, and since the St. FX student body is larger than the population of the town, CSL permeates Antigonish. Religious studies students provide aid and companionship to retired nuns, accounting students help non-profit organizations with book-keeping and financial planning, students in forensic psychology do placements in courtrooms and prisons from Ontario to Bermuda.
In 2004-2005, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation provided grants in support of CSL initiatives to ten universities across the country, and in 2009, the Foundation hired me to write a short book on their activities. Getting Wisdom: The Transformative Power of Community Service Learning was published in October.
For me, researching and writing the book was one of the great pleasures of 2010. In Vancouver, students working with the YWCA were researching childhood obesity in the Downtown Eastside. In Thunder Bay, Lakehead University had organized numerous faculty members and community groups around the general theme of food security, a pivotal issue for Northwestern Ontario. The CSL program at the University of Alberta had a profound impact on municipal government.
The notion that underlies CSL is that the universities may have profound theoretical knowledge about a subject, but people out in the community understand the realities – and a rounded education requires an understanding of both. Theory without practice has a ghostly unreality about it; practice without theory is a form of intellectual blindness.
CSL initiatives often encounter deep suspicion and tension between the community and the university – too often, universities have tended to treat communities like colonies of lab rats – but when its advocates achieve an atmosphere of collegiality and trust, the benefits are huge. Students and professors gain experience, community groups gain much-needed assistance and insights, and everybody learns – faculty, students, community organizers and clients alike.
And, no matter what they learn about their specific subjects, participants learn vital truths about the tectonic changes that are shaking the intellectual world. Reductionism – the intellectual habit of learning more and more about less and less – has been enormously useful, but its day is coming to a close. Knowledge, we are learning, is a single fabric, woven in every corner of human life.
The unity of all things is, not coincidentally, the chief lesson of ecology. CSL expresses a new ecology of knowledge that is transforming not just the university, but our whole vision of the world.