how to improve the civil society of a school

Students learn to be citizens by joining, forming, leading, and influencing extracurricular groups in their own schools. A school’s whole array of groups is its “civil society.” The number, diversity, reach, purpose, vitality, and interconnection of these groups is important for youth development, generally, and for civic education, in particular.

Discussing this topic with teachers this morning, I received an excellent question. How should we encourage all students to participate? What should we do about the fact that 9th-graders sign up for many groups but membership trails off fast? How about the students who are too busy because they work? And what about the kid who wears headphones all day and just doesn’t want to connect?

I think I began my reply with two caveats. First, I don’t know how to motivate teenagers nearly as well as teachers do. And second, some kids really may face serious barriers to membership, no matter how hard you try to include them.

That said, the challenges of a school’s civil society are like those of any civil society. Like teenagers, adults exhibit different degrees of commitment. They drop out when they lose interest or as a response to disagreements. Many free-ride, staying in a group to get its benefits without doing a fair share of the work. Some work extra hard and well but aren’t noticed.

Addressing these problems constitutes Alexis de Tocqueville’s “art and science of association.” It’s never easy but there are good practices. Impose regular penalties for non-contribution but make initial penalties very light so that they are actually enforced and violators can recover easily from being penalized. Keep a clear and public list of who belongs and who doesn’t and clarify what constitutes membership versus exit. Rotate responsibilities. Incorporate low-cost methods of monitoring compliance, such as sign-in sheets. Implement efficient mechanisms for conflict-resolution. (For these principles, see, among other sources: Ostrom, Elinor. “Design principles and threats to sustainable organizations that manage commons.” Santiago, Chile, March. 1999.)

Learning these practices is a core task of civic education. We traditionally learn them only from experience, but it is possible to learn some of them from texts and discussion. Students who learn to lead groups are better placed than any adults to actually generate viable groups in their own schools. Thus I would recommend teaching strategies for recruitment and group-management explicitly, and then encouraging student leaders to be primarily responsible for the vitality of their own civil society.

See also a portrait of American teenagers’ out-of-school life; and class disparities in extracurricular activities.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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