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.

Credit: Maureen Downey

Credit: Maureen Downey

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.