Students at a Tennessee high school are using funds from a grant they won to identify community needs and to launch projects to achieve results.
In 2015 Elizabethton High School sociology students—on the basis of a 70-page proposal—were awarded $200,000 from the XQ Institute, which was funded by Laurene Powell Jobs, the billionaire widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. XQ co-founder Russlynn H. Ali is a former Education Department assistant secretary for civil rights in the Obama administration. The stated purpose of XQ’s Super School project is to “disrupt” the American high school and redesign it for the 21st century.
The students at Elizabethton took their club name, the Bartleby Community Improvement Class, from Herman Melville’s short story Bartleby the Scrivener, a narrative they interpreted to be about a man who refused to do things that went against his conscience even when society expected those things from him. The Bartleby program encourages students to think about what education should be, and not just to accept a given curriculum.
Current projects include creating murals, a walking tour, trail cleanup, book clubs, veteran assistance, the design of a hostel on the Appalachian Trail, and a mental health support group. Next semester, 15 students will participate in the Bartleby Entrepreneurship Class, in which they will plan and establish businesses that will fill economic gaps.
The Bartleby Community Improvement Class offers students significant moral autonomy to judge what is important and act on it. Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture founder James Davison Hunter defines moral autonomy in The Tragedy of Moral Education in America as, “the ability to make decisions freely about what is right and wrong”—not in the sense that you choose your own right and wrong, but in that you are not coerced or “incentivized” in your judgment.
The Bartleby class offers an opportunity, with the help of a mentor, to nurture commitment to others through responsible action.