February 17, 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.
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