A Modest Proposal (to Help Fix American Education)

12/21/2011 05:26 pm ET | Updated Feb 20, 2012
  • Van Gosse Historian and author specializing in American political development

In 1729, Jonathan Swift penned his notorious "A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being a Burden to Their Parents or Country, and For Making Them Beneficial to the Public," to mock English complaints about the "burden" of the Irish people on the British Empire. His so-called modest solution? Encourage parents to eat their young. No more overpopulation, no more hunger, and no more rebellion.

I have another modest proposal, probably almost as outrageous and perhaps insulting to some people, but actually feasible and perhaps even moral.

We should smash the corrupting influence of athletics in our high schools, colleges and universities. Like students in the rest of the world, Americans should go to school for no other purpose than to learn.

I teach at a selective liberal arts college that produces dozens of future doctors, lawyers, and scientists every year. Most of our students are serious, with good minds, and they want to work hard. But it is no secret to the faculty that many of them are ill-prepared. A large percentage write poorly, with a weak grasp of basic grammar. They know little about the world, usually returning from their study-abroad semesters profoundly shocked by their new perspectives. They are steeped in unexamined nostrums, whether about American's special, sanctified role in history, or the absolute authority of laissez-faire economics. They don't read newspapers.

But these are among our best young people! My college's median SAT score for this year's entering class is over 1300. If a significant number of these students require catch-up training in how to write properly and think critically, how will the vast majority of less-fortunate students fare? There is little question that the average American high school graduate is poorly skilled, a victim of social promotion, overworked and undertrained teachers, politicized state testing norms, and, I strongly suspect, parents who insist on feel-good classes and easy grades. So we fall farther behind the world each year, as any American businessperson with overseas experience will confirm.

There is nothing inherently bad, and much good, about team sports. They teach mental and physical discipline, the virtues of camaraderie and the common good. They are a form of aesthetic play, like music or theater. But there is no evident connection between playing sports and study, and conflating the two, as we have done on a massive scale, is just plain bad for institutions of learning. No one ever asked whether Albert Einstein, Nelson Mandela, or Jane Addams did or did not "make the team." Yet in the U.S., at every level of K-12 and higher education, we provide vast resources, and assign great importance, to whether or not a particular young man or woman can or cannot throw a ball, run or swim fast, and so on. School pride and local culture revolve around team performance, as do alumni donations and state funding.

Of course, there's much more wrong in our schools than just the enormously oversized importance assigned to athletics: a culture of entitlement, an arrogant anti-intellectualism that scorns scholarship, structural poverty with no end in sight, our system of discriminatory funding based on property taxes, the affirmative action program for well-off kids whom we politely dub "legacies." A political party that represented all of my views would begin dealing with these much larger problems -- but that's not about to happen, and we need to start somewhere.

The rapidly spreading International Baccalaureate (I.B.) option is an indicator of what it would look like if we re-dedicated our high schools to learning so that our students were ready for competitive work at the college level. Young men and women in I.B. programs are not likely to start on any football or basketball team I can imagine -- they're too busy studying serious historical problems, mastering calculus, working in the lab, or (that scariest prospect for most Americans) learning to speak a foreign language competently.

For me, it's simple: my students who are varsity athletes must allocate twenty-five hours a week of intensive physical effort to their sport -- and this is at a Division Three school where athletics are formally a second-tier activity; Division One universities should be dubbed "semi-professional athletic training facilities," for those students who are the beneficiaries of that oxymoron, the "athletic scholarship." Think about popular movies like Jerry Maguire or The Blind Side -- there's no pretense that the physically gifted young black men around whom their plots revolve learn anything in college other than how to tackle, or leap in the air to catch a pass.

If U.S. students performed well, the question would be moot. But they don't. Outside of the top tier, whose parents are drawn almost entirely from the upper-middle and professional classes, they perform very badly. And yet, black, white, or Latino, in every school district, they are seduced by the possibility that some boy with fast hands or feet will be "scouted" and ascend to a stratosphere of fame and money.

American society is profoundly unequal, given how much wealth we actually possess and could devote to education. Better we adopt the European version of a stratified society, in which you rise through the combination of intellectual capacity and hard work. Rather than offering the poor and working classes a fantasy of individual superstardom, we should radically increase the rigor -- and thus the amount of time required -- in K-12 education. Of course, that means more and better teachers, and more money for them, but I suspect we cannot make any of those reforms, until we achieve a national consensus on the purpose of schooling itself. If we really believe in education, as the anchor of a coherent, hardworking, meritocratic but democratic society -- the vision of all of our great nineteenth century leaders, Lincoln above all -- then it's time get rid of everything that gets in the way, and one major obstacle is the central role of team sports.