Schools ought to produce good citizens as well as good students

In this essay, University of Georgia professor Peter Smagorinsky reflects on a recent event he attended sponsored by the Women Studies Club of Clarke Central High School. Such events — and the role teacher sponsors play in making them happen — don’t count in the measurement of successful schools.

But Smagorinsky says the development of civic involvement is an important and unheralded contribution of schools.

By Peter Smagorinsky

Sexual violence seems to be a national plague. It’s always taken place, but women and girls are finally coming forward and reporting the abuse. Infamous cases at elite private universities such as Stanford and Vanderbilt have made national headlines this year. My own alma mater, Kenyon College, was accused this year of covering up a dorm room rape. More locally, both Clarke and Gwinnett counties have been the sites of alleged gang rapes involving teenagers this year. These cases represent just a sample of the violence that has been committed against women in educational settings.

cottage

This symbol provided the logo for the T-shirts sold to raise funds for the Cottage.

I recently attended a fundraising event in Athens that benefitted the Cottage, Northeast Georgia’s sexual assault and children’s advocacy center. The organizers of this event sought to raise awareness of critical issues of sexual assault and harassment in Athens. The money they raised through a voluntary collection at the door, the sale of T-shirts designed by their members, and sales and auctions of art supported the Cottage in its work to help heal victims and support families affected by violence and abuse.

This impressive, sophisticated, and highly successful effort to address a chronic and persistent problem in the Athens community was organized entirely by students at Clarke Central High School. In calling attention to the young women who organized this event, I hope to make the point their civic action, while being among the greatest achievements of the Athens public schools this year, is the sort of learning opportunity that flies well beneath the radar of the ways in which schools are held accountable.

The teens who pulled off this event are members of a new school extracurricular activity, the Women Studies Club, which enrolls any student interested in advocating for women’s civil rights and is advised by English department chair Ian Altman. I’m proud of these kids for taking the initiative to act on a problem they have witnessed. Organizing a complex event takes intelligence, cooperation, vision, attention to detail, and a commitment to its goals and operation. It’s a great undertaking in every sense of the word. The kids raised $1,400 after costs, a hefty sum relative to the Cottage’s typical donation amount.

The club’s fundraiser addressed sexual assault after the fact, offering victims support in their recovery from the brutality of their assailants’ attacks. I hope that as the club matures, it plays a proactive role that raises awareness and contributes to the reduction, and ideally elimination, of this vicious violation of women and school communities.

My engagement with the students in the Women’s Studies Club at the fundraiser was very positive. They find this avenue of expression and action to be worthwhile, inspiring, and fulfilling. It’s not required of them; they do it because it matters to them. Although I didn’t have the opportunity to ask them, I suspect it serves as a far more important medium for their growth into the civic life of their communities than the evaluations that make up the formal assessment of their academic growth and the effectiveness of their teachers, which only take academic and assessment factors into account.

But schools are communities, not simply places where academic learning takes place. In my view, these kids demonstrate a problem that I find with the current policy environment: It completely overlooks the role of teachers and students in contributing to the school’s and city’s civic life. These facets of social life are critically important outcomes of public education, providing in my view the greatest return on taxpayers’ investments in their schools as students undertake adult roles in society.

I have focused on what is a politically liberal club and its activities; I do not wish to imply that liberal politics are the only worthy outlets for student expression. The high school also sponsors a Young Republicans club and a thriving Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter, which is non-partisan but has a conservative orientation. I’m glad to see they have opportunities to participate in civic action as well.

I have featured this group of students because I participated in their event and found it to be uplifting — as much for my admiration for the students as for the cause they championed, which I surely support. I only wish people making policy could understand how much they miss when they narrow their focus to what’s easy to measure when determining the quality and effectiveness of schools.

Reader Comments 0

28 comments
Wascatlady
Wascatlady

This sounds like an interesting group seeking more information on their own, with a sponsor that supports their quest.  That is great, and I enjoy the good Professor bringing it to our attention.


However, good citizens are made in the home.  Every day, from childhood on, parents are determining what kind of citizens their children will most likely become.  If parents are involved in their communities, volunteering in areas of interest or skills, being active voters, attending worship of their choice (or not), discussing ideas around the dinner table, their children will quite likely be good citizens--salt of the earth Americans.  I don't think the schools can do much to make students whose parents live in the dark, uninvolved with others, ungiving to the community, ignorant or dismissive of differing points of view, into good citizens.


Schools have for decades been hit with mission creep--that schools are to provide meals, health care, counseling, fitness--that has become mission avalanche.  Got a problem?  Let the schools solve it!

Jamesr1991
Jamesr1991

The whole notion of "good citizen" is different in everyone eyes. Read the comment below. Conservatives think you are making 'em Liberals and Liberals think you are creating real Americans. There's no such thing as good citizenship anymore. We are too f-ing jaded. We lack exceptionalism because everyone has their own agenda.

Sharon Pharr
Sharon Pharr

Define "good citizen". Promoting teachers and students to be activists for govt agendas is not producing good citizens. Teaching objective history and foundational philosophies to give citizens to ability to make objective choices

Katie Dunn
Katie Dunn

Raising money to assist trauma victims seems like pretty good citizenship to me...no government agenda there.

CSpinks
CSpinks

The motto of the Columbia County School System contains two words: Scholarship, Citizenship.

trifecta_
trifecta_

A key part of the narrative being peddled here, that universities are rape factories, is a false one long since debunked:

http://bit.ly/1zlD0L0


Eric Jaromin
Eric Jaromin

Hard to do when we are told to spoon feed them the entire time....

dcdcdc
dcdcdc

schools primary purpose should be to educate the students.  Once they can accomplish that, we can add on lots of other "nice to haves"


but lets work on accomplishing the top goal first.

JBBrown1968
JBBrown1968

@dcdcdc I think we should close all schools and send all students to you and astroturd! You both are silly as hell!

Astropig
Astropig

@JBBrown1968 @dcdcdc


Thank you. Knowing that I get to live rent free inside your chickpea sized brain is priceless! Just spell the name right,baby!


You've made my day.

Astropig
Astropig

Wasn't there a pretty good sized scandal at a Clarke County school earlier this years related to a student assault? I seem to remember that it was not handled well by the school district.

eulb
eulb

@Astropig Click on the Clark link within the article for a reminder about that scandal. This article's author is definitely NOT praising the adult administrators at the center of the scandal. This article is about students whose response to the situation is more helpful than their administrators' behavior.  The students are trying to address the situation, not hide it.  They are "taking the initiative to act on a problem they have witnessed" in their own school community.  I thank Smagorinsky for shining a light on them. 

Astropig
Astropig

@eulb @Astropig


Thank you.It didn't look like a link on my screen.I did follow it after you pointed that out.

historydawg
historydawg

The article is about students, right? Students whose leadership public education enables and supports but whose opportunities will be lost if we only think of ourselves and not all of our neighbors

historydawg
historydawg

Hurrah for this good word and the leadership of these students. Schools are integral parts of communities across our nation. Warring against public education is fighting against our neighbors. We must have the courage to support young people, even if they look different than us or are not related to us. That is the mission most Americans throughout our history embraced. It is in the interest of all of us to educate our neighbors.

mackdenny
mackdenny

Schools don't produce good citizen, PARENTS do.

historydawg
historydawg

@mackdenny  "Schools shall be erected in each county, and supported at the general expense of the State," says the Ga constitution in 1777. Our founders believed in the community's (i.e., government's) responsibility and ability to support the Republic, why not you?

redweather
redweather

The media spend entirely too much time reminding us of the bad elements in our society. A quick look at recent AJC headlines provides numerous examples. 

And what percentage of stories related to education focus on the good things being accomplished in school houses across the state? One in ten? One in fifteen?

We seem to have an insatiable appetite for stories about what has gone wrong rather than for what has gone right.

teachermom4
teachermom4

@redweather I so agree! Every tragic story, every traumatic event, every bit of bad behavior must be highlighted and rehashed over and over again. Keeping people in a perpetual state of fear and panic keeps their attention on the news outlets. People don't pay as much attention to good news. It's depressing.