Monthly Archives: February 2011

the civic value of extracurriculars

The evidence is very strong that extracurricular activities enhance democracy, yet there is little explicit advocacy for extracurricular participation. Some adult groups support and defend student groups that specifically interest them, whether that means Christian bible clubs or Gay, Lesbian and Straight Alliances. Civil libertarians defend students’ legal rights to associate. But nobody is organized to say that there should be adequate funding, support, space, and time for a whole range of voluntary associations in all of our schools.

All students should have opportunities to join voluntary groups that have serious functions and that are adequately supported with money, equipment, and adults’ time. Many studies have found lasting relationships between participation in such school groups and membership and service in adulthood. In some studies, membership in school groups turns out to be a better predictor of adult engagement than is education or income.

In turn, adult membership is valuable because voluntary associations do important public work, and their members also tend to read the newspaper, vote, and otherwise engage. Thus to recruit students into satisfying extracurricular activities may help make them civic activists, news consumers, and voters—even thirty or fifty years later. Presented with this argument at a meeting of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor recalled that she had been a shy high school student until she joined a school group. She was then on a path to become an attorney, an influential state legislator, and the first woman Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Almost any school houses a “civil society” composed of organized groups and various informal networks and interest groups. In CIRCLE’s 2006 national survey of youth, 62 percent of high school students said that they were “currently participating in any organized groups or clubs in high school such as sports teams, band or chorus, language clubs, or the like.” Unfortunately, the most common types of groups (athletics, cheerleading, music, drama, debate, newspaper, yearbook, student government, subject matter clubs, and vocational clubs) shrank between 1972 and 1992, attracting smaller proportions of our young people.

There are several plausible reasons for the link between extracurricular participation and lifelong civic engagement. Belonging to school groups may build confidence, or it may be sufficiently satisfying that members develop a taste for participation. People may form networks in school groups that keep them connected to associations as they age. Not least is the educational value of extracurricular activities. In the terminology of University of Illinois psychology professor Reed Larson, students can obtain opportunities for “initiative” by participating in voluntary, purposive, collective activities such as publishing a school newspaper or organizing a dance. [See also Eccles and Barber.]

Further, as the Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom notes, people must learn how to overcome the problems that beset all collective human enterprises. She writes, “At any time that individuals may gain from the costly action of others, without themselves contributing time and effort, they face collective action dilemmas for which there are coping methods. When de Tocqueville discussed the ‘art and science of association,’ he was referring to the crafts learned by those who had solved ways of engaging in collective action to achieve a joint benefit.” Ostrom has found that we do not automatically know how to address the problems that beset all voluntary associations, so we must learn strategies from experience. Solutions “must be taught to each generation as part of the culture of a democratic citizenry.”

Extracurricular participation can teach people, among other things, how to keep records and chair meetings, how to respond when some members shirk their duties, how to handle a budget, how to persuade groups of peers, and how to advertise the benefits of an association to outsiders. Once these skills are learned, they enhance participation in civil society.

I have been arguing that extracurricular participation helps make students into active and responsible democratic citizens. It is also worth noting that active and responsible civic participation in school helps young people succeed in other aspects of life. Alberto Dávila and Marie T. Mora found [pdf] that “involvement in student government between 1990 and 1992 increased the odds of being a college graduate by 2000 by nearly 18 percentage points.” Jacquelynne S. Eccles and Bonnie L. Barber also found strong and lasting correlations between participating in school groups and healthy development: namely, completing high school, succeeding in college, and avoiding drugs and alcohol. They found somewhat ambiguous results for sports, but the advantages of volunteering and church attendance were strong.

In a 2010 study, Reuben Thomas and Daniel McFarland found that participation in extracurricular groups (as a general category) boosted students’ voting rates. In their study, high school performing arts were especially helpful for encouraging voting. That may seem surprising since the purpose of a school play has little to do with elections. Perhaps students who bond during a school production also talk about politics and gain a sense of confidence and commitment that encourages them to vote.

In the Thomas and McFarland study, sports stood out—in a bad way. Athletic participation was associated with lower voter turnout. On the other hand, Mark Hugo Lopez and Kimberlee Moore found statistically significant, positive relationships between team sports (on one hand) and volunteering, registering to vote, voting, watching the news, and feeling comfortable making statements at public meetings (on the other hand). Overall, the evidence for the civic impact of sports is mixed—perhaps because students’ experience with athletics varies so much. The civic impact of other extracurriculars is unambiguously positive.

A wide range of student associations is valuable, and we should not merely support those whose missions are explicitly civic or political. People who participate in extracurricular activities are more likely than others to engage in community service (even once we adjust for background characteristics), which again suggests that being involved is a good thing, almost without regard to the form of involvement.

In some schools, every student has a roughly equal opportunity to participate; in others, most are left out. In some schools, voluntary groups bridge race, ethnicity, culture, and class; in others, they divide students along those lines. In a given institution, the biggest and most influential groups may emphasize athletic competition, school pride, service, artistic creativity, cultural diversity, or political activism. I am not aware of research that allows us to assess the impact of the overall “ecosystem” of extracurricular groups.

However, if we treat a school’s collection of clubs as a microcosm of civil society, then some propositions about the adult nonprofit sector ought to apply. For adults, pluralism and choice are valuable; people cannot be “shepherded” into groups that others may consider most valuable. Even more than adults, adolescents must experiment in order to develop their interests and identities; they should be able to try various roles even if we might not fully approve of them. But even if individuals must be allowed to choose their groups, it is better when civil society cultivates what the Bowling Alone author, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, calls “bridging social capital.” That is, people ought to learn to work together with those different from themselves and develop trust and useful networks that “bridge” differences; they should not merely use associational membership to differentiate in-groups from out-groups. In American schools, voluntary associations tend to be exclusive. Without being overly manipulative, adults should foster “bridging” activities and groups.

Finally, certain student groups have explicitly civic purposes and they seem to be especially important for promoting discussion and collaboration across the whole student body. Those include student newspapers (and other publications) and student governments.

why we need civic education

I enjoyed conversations with about 75 supporters of civic education in Colorado yesterday, in three different meetings. They represented school systems, the state education agency, local nonprofits, foundations, and school board members. My comments at the first session are on the Education News Colorado blog, under the headline “Why we need civic education.” The comments give a flavor of the conversation.

with Facing History and Ourselves and others in Colorado

Denver, CO: I am here for a series of conversations about civic education, youth civic engagement, and education reform in Colorado. My hosts are Facing History and Ourselves, the Colorado Legacy Foundation, and the Donnell-Kay Foundation and I look forward to seeing other proponents of civic education, old friends and new ones.

Since my main host is Facing History and Ourselves, this is an appropriate moment to introduce the program. It provides curricula, professional development, and materials related to historical examples of severe intergroup conflict, such as the Holocaust. Students are encouraged to discuss and critically evaluate their own identities and responsibilities in response to these cases. Probably the best evaluated program in the field, it has been the subject of roughly 100 published studies, including, most recently, a national randomized experiment which found strong positive academic outcomes (such as improved skills for interpreting historical evidence) and civic benefits (such as increased tolerance and belief that one can make a difference). Participating teachers were more likely to create serious, intellectually focused, ethical communities in their classrooms. These outcomes are not only important later, once students have graduated and become adults with influence in civil society; they also matter immediately, because schools in which students and teachers work tolerantly and constructively together are the best environments for learning.

a real alternative to ideal theory in political philosophy

In philosophy, “ideal theory” means arguments about what a true just society would be like. Sometimes, proponents of ideal theory assert that it is useful for guiding our actual political decisions, which should steer toward the ideal state. John Rawls revived ideal theory with his monumental A Theory of Justice (1971). His position was egalitarian/liberal, but Robert Nozick joined the fray with his libertarian Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), and a huge literature followed.

Recently, various authors have been publishing critiques of ideal theory. I am, for example, reading Raymond Geuss’ Philosophy and Real Politics (2008) right now. One of the most prominent critiques is by Amartya Sen in The Idea of Justice (2009). Sen argues that there is no way to settle reasonable disagreements about the ideal state. Knowing what is ideal is not necessary to make wise and ethical decisions. Even an ideally designed set of public institutions would not guarantee justice, because people must be given discretion to make private decisions, but those decisions can be deeply unjust. Finally, there is an alternative to the tradition of developing ideal social contracts, as Plato, More, Locke, Rousseau, Rawls, Nozick, and many others did. The alternative is to compare on moral grounds actually existing societies or realizable reforms, in order to recommend improvements, a strategy epitomized by Aristotle, Adam Smith, Benjamin Constant, Tocqueville, and Sen (among many others).

I am for this but would push the critique further than Sen does. The non-ideal political theories that he admires are still addressed to some kind of sovereign: a potential author of laws and policies in the real world, a “decider” (as George W. Bush used to call himself). Sen, for example, in his various works, addresses two kinds of audiences: the general public, understood as sovereign because we can vote, or various specific authorities, such as the managers of the World Bank. In his work aimed at general readers, he envisions a “global dialogue,” rich with “active public agitation, news commentary, and open discussion,” to which he contributes guiding principles and methods. In turn, that global dialogue will influence the actual decision-makers, whether they are voters and consumers in various countries or powerful leaders.

Unfortunately, no reader is really in the position of a sovereign. You and I can vote, but not for elaborate social strategies. We vote for names on a ballot, while hundreds of millions of other people also vote with different goals in mind. If I prefer the social welfare system of Canada to the US system, I cannot vote to switch. Not can I persuade millions of Americans to share my preference, because I don’t have the platform to reach them. Even legislators are not sovereigns, because there are many of them, and the legislature shares power with other branches and levels of government and with private institutions.

Thus “What is to be done?” is not a question that will yield practical guidance for individuals. It is a more relevant question for Sen than for me, because he has spent a long life in remarkably close interaction with famous and distinguished leaders from Bengal to California. (The “acknowledgments” section of The Idea of Justice is the longest I have ever seen and represents a Who’s Who of public intellectuals.) But if Sen’s full “theory of change” is to become internationally famous and then give advice to leaders, it will only work for a very few.

What then should we do (I who writes these words and you who read them, along with anyone whom we can enlist for our causes)? That seems to be the pressing question, but not if the answer stops with changes in our personal behavior and immediate circumstances. National and global needs are too important for us only to “be the change” that we want in the world. We must also change the world. Our own actions (yours and mine) must be plausibly connected to grand changes in society and policy. Thinking about what we should do raises an entirely different set of questions, dilemmas, models, opportunities, and case-studies than are familiar in modern philosophy.