‘Educating the emotions’ via extracurriculars

Don’t cut extracurriculars or add fees that make it hard for students to participate, writes Mike Petrilli on Flypaper.

I can’t prove it, but I strongly suspect that one of the reasons American kids do so well in life (starting entrepreneurial companies, embracing a spirit of optimism, creating wealth, etc.) – even though they score poorly on international tests  –is because of what they pick up from sports, theater, band, student council, and the like.

Petrilli is impressed by David Brooks’ New York Times column on “educating the emotions.” Brooks writes:

When we raise our kids, we focus on the traits measured by grades and SAT scores. But when it comes to the most important things like character and how to build relationships, we often have nothing to say. Many of our public policies are proposed by experts who are comfortable only with correlations that can be measured, appropriated and quantified, and ignore everything else.

Researchers in “neuroscience, psychology, sociology, behavioral economics and so on” are advancing a “richer and deeper view,” writes Brooks. We are social animals who “thrive as we educate our emotions,” not just our reason.

Children’s emotions are best educated outside the classroom, Petrilli argues.

I’m all for extracurriculars, but I also think we parents care a lot about our children’s character and their ability to form relationships when “we raise our kids.”

Brooks has written about his ideas in the form of a novel, The Social Animal:  The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement. The book is a depressing tale of two boring people “who lead muted, more or less satisfactory lives in the successful pursuit of achievement as it is narrowly defined by their culture,” writes Will Wilkinson in Forbes. PZ Myers got through the “arid wasteland” by repeatedly chanting “Die, yuppie scum, die,” he writes in Salon. Brooks is an acute social observer, but is frequently wrong about the science, writes psychologist Christopher Chabris in the Wall Street Journal. OK, here’s a Christian Science Monitor review that calls Brooks an “able storyteller.”

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  1. I think we should encourage extracurriculars in high school, but get rid of group-centric busy-work.

    Student run extra curriculars really do teach kids how to plan, delegate and work together on something they care about.

    Many of the ‘group projects’ involve one student doing all the work so that nobody’s grade suffers.

    Also, while parents CAN teach their kids good social skills, I think that, ideally, high school should be a time of increased independance. Of course, these activities don’t have to be school-based. There are community theaters, boy scouts, club sports, etc.

    BUT, activities are an important part of developing an spreading ‘middle class values.’ Middle class parents will make sure their kids still have activities– but what about the kids who aren’t from middle class backgrounds?

  2. Walter E. Wallis says:

    The extracurricular activity is best left extracurricular. Enough that schools teach the curricular.

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Extracurriculars can serve as shelters from other, less savory aspects of some students lives. They can help draw the student out of whatever “default” life he or she would lead, and into “student life.”

    They (extracurriculars) are part of what binds a campus together and makes it an organically cohesive campus, and not just a collection of students taking classes.

    The students from stable, sane, well-educated families aren’t the ones who need to emotional support and development that extracurriculars can provide.

  4. Cranberry says:

    Our local public school has preserved extracurriculars by instituting fees. I disapprove, as it tilts the field toward students whose parents are willing and able to pay. It is not fair for a public school to introduce a policy which reserves part of the educational experience for the more affluent (or less thrifty.) As a practical matter, the wealthier children don’t need as many school-based activities, because they are also enrolled in private activities.

    I find it difficult to support public schools spending money on extracurriculars which benefit small groups of children, at the expense of everyone else. The primary example of this is athletics at the high school level. In order to be placed on a high school team, students must train for years in private, travel leagues. Is it fair for a school to support a state championship soccer team at the cost of restricting access to lab sciences? I don’t think it is.

    My idea of a proper education includes equal access to clubs, the arts, and sports. We are entering a time of trade-offs, though, which forces us to make hard choices. It’s easier (or at least, more affordable) for schools to offer chorus, track, and debate club than chamber music, a football team, and a t.v. broadcast studio.

  5. Stacy in NJ says:

    The problem with extracurricular tied to high school is that it creates in and out groups associated with athletics which is inappropriate in a supposed academic setting. I’m all for extracirriculars but they should take place and be organized outside of the academic setting.

  6. georgelarson says:

    Stacy in NJ

    I agree that cam be a problem, but don’t you think that can be reduced in a well managed school with good priorities?

  7. Genevieve says:

    I agree with Cranberry. It isn’t just sports. To do well in choir, band and orchestra requires private lessons; usually years of them. I’m sure that this is true for other extra-curricular activities as well.
    There is also the added problem of only hiring teachers that can coach a sport. This is a big problem in my area, especially in the smaller schools.
    Finally, some teachers focus on the extra-curricular to the exclusion of academics. I had a Spanish teacher that left the majority of teaching my Spanish 3 class to a non-fluent student teacher to focus on Spanish Bowl. My husband had a teacher that only cared about the basketball team. In fact, at my husband’s school, the sports students were treated very different from the regular students.

    I’m all for extra-curricula activities. I don’t even have a problem using school facilities for them. However, I don’t think they should be run by the school or the school district.

  8. All four of my kids were full-time elite athletes and their HS teams were merely an extra. I am fully aware of the benefits of extracurriculars but see no need for the school to provide them, and all of my now-adult kids agree. Debate can be taken as an academic class, as is done now with serious programs.

    Parks and rec departments and other community groups already exist and already provide such opportunities. As far as the majority of sports are concerned, the existing club structure goes all the way to college and often to the Olympics (possible exception of football, which doesn’t seem to have such a club structure). I would go even further and allow participation on a sports team to count for PE credit. In some cases, such as swimming and gymnastics, PE places kids at risk for overuse injuries. I’ve never heard a convincing argument for requiring kids who already train 15-20 hours a week to take PE. In some cases, the PE teachers use them as (unpaid) teachers – as was done with three 8th-graders who were varsity swimmers.

    Schools aren’t doing such a wonderful job on education that they should be doing anything else. At best, extracurriculars are a distraction to what should be the primary mission.

  9. Some of the posters above are familiar with upper-middle class areas, but not other areas. At many, many high schools the kids have no access to these traveling teams; the band and orchestra kids have had school-provided lessons only, and so forth. Parks and rec could never accomodate all the kids who would benefit from extracurriculars, and it’s best to have them on site. but I do agree that coaches get special treatment that is unfair.

  10. L. Stevens says:

    It’s clear that emotional “intelligence” is critical to a well balanced individual and society, in providing happy, stable and productive people. Schools and extracurriculars can provide some help here. However, the main onus has always been on the family to provide this. Unfortunately, with the breakdown of the traditional and extended family many children no longer have this critical role model environment. Schools can provide some of this care and good teachers do form caring and important role models for children. Yet, the field of Early Childhood Ed. confirms that self-esteem and behavior are critically shaped by modeling of the people the child forms the closest bonds with…the family. Formally teaching relational and parenting skills in public schools would certainly help.

  11. Also, haven’t some charter schools had a lot of success with things like Chess Club and Math team? And can’t schools offer intermural as well as varsity sports?

    For a kid with no transportation, no money, and parents who can’t even be bothered taking him to the public library once a week, extra-curriculars may be the only chance to do these things…..

  12. As someone has already suggested, extracurriculars can be run by others and located at school facilities.

    “For a kid with no transportation, no money, and parents who can’t even be bothered taking him to the public library once a week, extra-curriculars may be the only change to do these things” – it is unfortunate that far too many kids have sperm/egg donors instead of real parents. However, the responsible citizens should not be required, through taxes, to enable the irresponsibility of others, especially in an economic situation where they are struggling to provide for their own families.

    The forty-year experiment in throwing boatloads of money at the poor hasn’t worked. As someone recently commented, “the safety net has become a hammock.” Government should get out of the charity business (all social programs) and return it to the private sphere, which is able to decide where help will be offered and where it will not.

  13. Michael E. Lopez says:


    Providing activities to otherwise deprived kids is not the same as “enabling” the poor, or “throwing boatloads of money” at the poor. Indeed, it’s decidedly of the “teach a man to fish” variety of social assistance.

    Now I agree with you about the actual handouts. Free lunches should be done away with entirely — a parent should be expected to feed his or her kids and it will become immediately apparent if a child isn’t eating.

    But poor kids are often in a tight spot with respect to their futures precisely because they don’t have anything like a real community in which to develop. Fragmenting what have been traditionally school activities into various private organizations is a mistake: the kids are already at school. Things that make it more of a community are a good thing.

    Seriously people: look at your state and city budgets and tell me that the things that really need to be eliminated are choir and the school newspaper.

    As an aside — in what is fast making me think that I might be merely a sock puppet, DM and I seem to be on the same page. Have we ever disagreed about anything?

  14. There is no reason that scholarships cannot be provided for kids who are genuinely needy and who are willing to contribute what they can. Both scholarships and fundraising are a common part of travel sports but I have seen more than a few teams destroyed by the refusal of scholarship kids to participate in fundraisers like carwashes (and transportation is provided, if needed). Many of these kids expect everything to be provided and others tend to resent that, especially when the kids have all the latest electronic gadgets and the fancy logo shoes,clothes and accessories (not gear for their sport) that others do not have because they/their families use their resources more wisely.

  15. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Oh yeah, I’m sure teens are lining up out the door to publicly admit that they’re poor and need a scholarship to join the swim team.

    F*** that. I’d rather have not participated when I was a teenager — because non-participation is easier for the teen ego to take, and teenagers — particularly those from lower socioeconomic strata — are all about doing whatever is emotionally the easiest.

    Which is why they need things like the swim team.

  16. Stacy in NJ says:

    Removing athletics and activites from the school environment doesn’t mean we can’t publically fund them. In addition to community recreation departments, there are YMCA’s and Boy’s and Girls clubs in most cities in the US. We can continue to funds these activites, but seperate them from the core responsibilites of schools. These programs might be more effective and have a broader reach when they’re removed from the sometimes negative social circumstances of the school. It gives the kids the opportunity to meet and mingle with folks outside their school environment. It makes for a wider world instead of a more narrow one. They also wouldn’t be limited by hiring mostly teachers as coaches.

  17. Mr. Petrilli should read the review of the book by Chistopher Chabris in the WSJ on 3/7/11. The money quote: “The lessons he draws are often insightful, but they are not reliably correct.”

    As usual, too many educators are impressed by things that are not reliably correct. When will the education field become a serious one?

  18. I find athletics problematic, our football team actually funds the rest of the extracurriculars through ticket sales. FWIW, we have things like a video game club, chess club, yoga, dance dance revolution, etc. — there’s something for nearly any kid.

    These programs probably aren’t strictly necessary, but allow us to form better relationships with some of the students — occasionally these relationships end up being life savers — even for the wealthy kids. The cynic in me says that schools are for education, not all this other crap. The bleeding heart liberal in me sees far too many teenagers who need stable adults in their lives.

  19. Adding extra fees to school field trips and activities defeat the purpose of public school systems. These establishments are in place to provide a safe and (cost free) environment for our kids.