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Emerald Group Publishing Limited
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Service-learning as the “get-it-all-together educational experience
Article Type: Commentaries From: International Journal of Organizational Analysis, Volume 18, Issue 2
Throughout his very productive life, educator-diplomat-creative thinker Harlan Cleveland frequently spoke of public administration as the “get-it-all-together” profession. What he meant was that people who work in public and non-profit organizations have to be conversant with a wide variety of fields of study, able to manage interdisciplinary teams, able to draw on a wide range of knowledge to get their jobs done. In addition, public administrators need to manage increasingly complex networks of individuals and organizations to provide public services. They must be able to do more with fewer resources and still recruit and retain the talent needed. They must lead and collaborate, include with cultural sensitivity, rejuvenate citizenship and participation, revive a focus on the common good and much more (Hamilton, 2007). In other words, they need to be prepared for a world where there are few or no guidelines, incomplete-at-best playbooks, and where “what you don’t know is far more relevant than what you do know” (Taleb, 2007, p. xix).
Harlan Cleveland’s notion of the educated public or non-profit manager is the model we need to determine whether higher education has been successful. In an age where the future is indeed unscripted and we are more interconnected than we have ever been, our educational institutions must provide an experience that prepares citizens of the world to be able to “get-it-all-together” in widely diverse and unpredictable situations. I like Taleb’s (2007, pp. xxvii-xxviii) words here also:
[…] in spite of our progress and growth in knowledge, or perhaps because of such progress and growth, the future will be increasingly unpredictable, while both human nature and social “science” seem to conspire to hide the idea from us.
Taleb (2007, p. xxi) argues that we have an “excessive focus on what we know” and much less on what do not know, and “we tend to learn the precise, not the general”. A better approach, says Taleb (2007, p. xxi), “is to rely less on top-down planning and focus on maximum tinkering and recognizing opportunities when they present themselves”. He goes on to say that “Living on our planet, today, requires a lot more imagination than we are made to have” (Taleb, 2007, p. xxvii). It seems to me that service-learning provides, even demands all of the above – maximum tinkering, recognizing and seizing opportunities and maximum imagination.
I have no illusions that higher education will move quickly or with agility to provide the kind of interdisciplinary, integrative experiences that would be required to turn out graduates with such skills. Therefore, I am delighted to see the increased interest in service-learning as a potential “end run”, or, as we used to say in the federal government “work-around” to help accomplish these results in spite of existing systems that repress these tendencies.
I love the notion of service-learning as a sort of guerilla movement to engage students with others in important work that requires them to use their minds to think and reflect, focus on possibilities and follow their natural curiosity. Imagine turning out a generation of world citizens who were confident that they could handle the irritating ambiguities of the unscripted future because they have had the experience of doing just that in a service-learning setting! As Robert Pirsig said in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
[…] object knowledge, although necessary, isn’t enough. You have to have some feeling for the quality of the work. You have to have a sense of what’s good. That is what carries you forward […] It’s not just “intuition”, or unexplainable “skill” or “talent”. It’s the direct result of contact with basic reality (emphasis is mine; Pirsig, 1974).
Mary R. HamiltonUniversity of Nebraska Omaha, Omaha, Nebraska, USA
About the author
Mary R. Hamilton (PhD, University of Maryland) is Senior Executive in Residence and Director of the Nebraska Certified Public Manager® Program at the University of Nebraska Omaha. Previously, she served as Executive Director of the American Society for Public Administration, and Senior Executive at the US Government Accountability Office. She is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and a former Senior Examiner for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, and Judge for the Air Force and President’s Quality Awards. She has published in professional journals, has chapters in two edited books, and serves on several public administration editorial boards. Mary R. Hamilton can be contacted at: Mary.Hamilton@cox.net
Hamilton, M.R. (2007), “Democracy and public service”, in Box, R.C. (Ed.), Democracy and Public Administration, M.E. Sharpe, Armonk, NY, pp. 3–20
Pirsig, R.M. (1974), Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, New York, NY, as cited in Khademian, A.M. (2010), “The pracademic and the fed: the leadership of Chairman Benjamin Bernanke”, Public Administration Review, Vol. 70 No. 1, p. 142
Taleb, N.N. (2007), The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, Random House, New York, NY
Cleveland, H. (2002), “Leadership: the get-it-together profession”, The Futurist, Vol. 36 No. 5, pp. 42–7