08/15/2012 01:58 pm ET Updated Oct 15, 2012

Educating for Democracy: Can We Grow Up?

On a recent trip to visit family and friends in Turkey and Israel I asked, a propos of the Olympics, what importance is given to sports in their respective national universities. After all, many Olympic athletes train at universities in the United States where the excellent coaching and focus is to develop world-class athletes. For instance, Ashton Eaton, the gold medal winner in the decathlon, represented the University of Oregon in collegiate sports and was a world-class athlete when he became a member of the Oregon Athletic Club Elite. Many other American athletes begin their careers in college varsity sports. To my question concerning university sports in their respective countries, however, my Turkish friends and Israeli relatives affirmed what I had long thought: varsity sports is not a significant part of the campus culture in these countries. In fact, the United States is almost unique in the world in the emphasis and attention placed upon our collegiate teams, especially in football and basketball.

The recent scandal at Penn State and its aftermath brought out some much-needed soul-searching concerning the significance of collegiate sports in identifying a university in the public consciousness. In an article I wrote in the Examiner several years ago, based on a critical report by the Knight Foundation, I pointed out that, "According to the report, 75% of these [Division 1] college athletic programs, instead of making money for their schools, are losing an average of $10,000,000 a year, forcing cut backs on faculty positions and other expenses for what is supposed to be the primary mission of higher education: learning, not entertainment for alumni boosters." There is no reason to suppose that the situation has improved markedly since then.

If the significance of colleges and universities in our cultural values is to provide entertainment for mass audience on Saturday afternoons or during "March Madness" then we are going to end up, to alter the title of a Neil Postman book, "Entertaining Ourselves into Insignificance." I wonder when, given all of the problems this country is facing, we will behave like mature adults rather than the perpetual adolescents which it seems big time collegiate sports would like to keep us indefinitely?

Of course, athletics can be an important part of many students' educational experiences but they need to be balanced with the more daunting objective of properly educating the next generation -- that will require high-level thinking and establishing clear priorities that require the hard work and persistence which governs the behavior of students from other countries. Of course, our educational system has been successful for our top students, but we need to encourage a culture that nurtures those many students who are not at the top.

We must face the fact that unless we alter the emphasis of our priorities from forms of escapism to solid learning, we will become in the future the thing we should fear: a country that longs for a return to its past.