This study examines definitional controversies over the use of the term “service learning.” Using historical description and argument analysis, I examine formal and informal definitions of service learning from the inception of the term in 1969 to the present, and the arguments that are proposed for or against particular definitions. Studying how interlocutors use argumentation strategies for definitions, by definition, and about definitions can help explicate whose interests are served through service learning. Recognizing that all definitions are political and historically situated, I suggest a return to one of the philosophical roots of service learning – John Dewey’s philosophies on experience and education.
Rather than approaching definitions as an argument about what service learning “is” or looking for an essence of service learning, I follow Edward Schiappa’s “pragmatic turn” of looking at which definitions of service learning ought to apply in particular contexts. This study concludes with an argument for multiple definitions of the term: service learning as philosophies about education, service learning as a program description, and service learning as a field of study. It is only when service learning advocates, practitioners, and scholars begin to critically reflect on their definitional disputes that the impacts of service learning will extend beyond the classroom.