“My son likes your class, but what he really loves is soccer.” From time to time I hear a parent make this remark during a parent-teacher conference, although it never comes as a surprise. Sports are on the hearts of the students. Students have taught themselves sports diligently. Students talk of sports when they sit in their houses, when they walk by the way, when the lie down and when they rise up.
“Be warned,” writes Solomon in Ecclesiastes, “much study is wearisome to the flesh.” Not the study of sports, though. Perhaps this is because students don’t so much study sports as they live sports. There is no kind of paideia so living and active in America as the paideia of sports. Students practice sports for many hours every week, and then compete for many hours. When they are not practicing or competing, they might be watching their schoolmates compete, or watching college players or professionals compete. Students might watch competitions on television, or travel hundreds of miles to bear witness to competition in a stadium. Students’ bedrooms and lockers are often awash with posters of players. Some dress as their favorite players, or in garb illuminated by the icons of favorite teams. Like liturgical colors, sports change with the weather, or maybe weather changes with sports; sports are like the governing heavenly bodies of old. Basketball season. Baseball season. Is our conception of sports nearly religious? Every August, high school cheerleaders collect donations outside my favorite fish market. They jingle buckets of coins, accepting alms like monks or the parabolic Lazarus. Sports are so obviously valuable that cheerleaders— who don’t even play sports but merely praise those who do— are thought to perform a dignified, humane service worthy of charitable giving, much like, say, St Jude Children’s Research Hospital or The American Cancer Society.
Most classical Christian schools maintain some kind of sports program; unlike the study of Latin or philosophy, the significance and sublimity of sports are culturally reinforced both inside school and out. The power and influence of sports is not merely over the schedule of a student. Truth be told, the typical student probably spends more hours in class every week than they do on the field. Rather, sports hold great sway over the imagination of the student. Rather than being an oddity or an intrusion from the saeculum, sports are at harmony with the world and even bring the world into harmony. Sports can be discussed with people twice your age or half your age, with Christian or agnostic. Sports are allowed and endorsed by faithful and faithless alike. Sports befit the active body while competing, and the body at rest in front of a game on television. Sports commend both violence and grace, Dionysus and Apollo. On the other hand, few parents read great books alongside their sons and daughters. The son reads Boethius and the father says, “This seems really complicated. I am so impressed you understand it.” In such a house, sports will always be more important.
The problem is not one lately arisen, but is more than a century in the making. In the October issue of The Atlantic, Amanda Ripley (“The Case Against High School Sports”) describes the ascent of high school sports emerging in the late Victorian when Americans adopted British beliefs about how to keep the negative effects of lust and luxury at bay. Ripley writes:
Sports, the thinking went, would both protect boys’ masculinity and distract them from vices like gambling and prostitution. “Muscular Christianity,” fashionable during the Victorian era, prescribed sports as a sort of moral vaccine against the tumult of rapid economic growth. “In life, as in a foot-ball game,” Theodore Roosevelt wrote in an essay on “The American Boy” in 1900, “the principle to follow is: Hit the line hard; don’t foul and don’t shirk, but hit the line hard!”
The massive economic development of the US following the Civil War, our own Gilded Age, had opened up young men to the corruptions of luxurious living, that same softness and effeminacy which philosophers coupled with excess cash ever since the Republic. Sports would fight the effects of money, though, and keep boys from getting fat and flirting too much. Sports were commonly played in sandlots and backyards prior to 1900, but around the turn of the century sports became subsidized and incorporated into public schools. Suffice to say, sports are now deeply rooted in American education.
Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that sports are bad or that we ought to make “a case against them,” necessarily. The gymnastic element of any good classical education might easily involve football or baseball or track; certain aspects of self-control cannot be learned apart from diet and strenuous physical exhaustion, both of which are proper not only to sports but to forming virtuous human beings. As opposed to arguing against the omnipresence of sports, I would prefer to take a few cues from sports and their irresistible grace.
What gives sports their allure over academics in the imagination of a young student? There are no grades. You play soccer only if you want to, and you don’t get a grade.
There is no single aspect of American academics more deleterious to a student’s desire to learn than grades, transcripts and scholarships. Grades teach students, parents and teachers alike to approach learning in a mechanistic fashion. Grades sculpt the heart of the student to think of learning in terms of mastery and completion, not in terms of submission or humility, and certainly not as though learning was a lifelong project. Consider for a moment the student who receives a score of 100% on an essay composed about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What does that score mean? Has the student learned the book completely, exhaustively? Could they not learn more on a second read? A third read? If a student could learn more of the book on a second read, then what does that 100% represent? Is the essay perfect? It could not be improved with another round of editing? Has the teacher perfectly understood the ideas of the student? If the teacher reads the essay a second time, might they discover some flaw or contradiction passed over on a first read? There is no 100% in football, though, as a player can always run a little faster, jump a little higher, throw a little farther. There is no ceiling of excellence in football or baseball, and so sports are open to the infinite, to the eternal, to the perfect and good. Anything graded on a scale of 1 to 100 is closed off from the infinite, though. The 1 to 100 scale is about efficiency, mastery, damage control, the law of averages, advancement— not the stuff dreams are built on, and not the stuff of gods or heaven or religion.
Teachers cannot simply do away with grades, however we can begin talking of grades differently and recruiting parents in the project of getting school communities to think of learning differently. Here are a few practical suggestions to this end.
First, in parent-teacher conferences, ask parents, “How do you talk about grades in your house?” and listen. When a parent or teacher asks, “How did you do on your philosophy exam?” and the student responds, “I got a 98,” the student has not answered the question, although parents and teachers alike often respond with, “That’s wonderful!” But that’s not necessarily wonderful. A student who cheats on an exam might get a 98. If a parent is content with “I got a 98,” the student learns that getting a 98 is important and anything else about the test performance is tertiary. If a student brought home an exam that was graded, but there was no number or letter at the top, what kind of questions would a parent have to ask in order to know if the student had learned anything? They would need to read the questions, read the answers, and ask their son or daughter to explain why the answer was wise, sophisticated. If an exam is over Edmund Burke or Augustine, a parent will not necessarily be able to tell if the test work is valid or not, unless they also have read Burke or Augustine. Encouraging parents to read the books that their sons and daughters are reading will enable them to better converse about what is being learned; students will also see their parents reading, not for a paycheck and not for a grade, but for the goodness of gaining in wisdom and knowledge. What’s more, the world of school and the world of home will seem less like disparate worlds. Academia becomes more harmonious with the world.
Second, teachers can cease to speak of good grades as though they are sure signs of learning. When a teacher says, “You all did very well on the test last week. There were seven As,” what will pass through the mind of student who wrote very good answers for two or three questions, but only received a B? That student will think, “I am not part of the success story of this class.” Instead, the teacher might make it a point of reading aloud the good work of a student who only got a B and commending that good work to the class, then handing back a B test or quiz. The students, one by one, can more easily come to an understanding that good work and high grades are not synonymous.
Finally, get students to think about how deeply good grades and the good life are connected. I recently asked my students, “If you were to find out today that you would not pass another test or quiz for the rest of your life, how might that come as some relief to you?” They laughed. It could not come as relief. I gave them almost an hour to think and write on the question, and slowly, meltingly, a few of them surrendered to the fantasy. One student responded, “I could focus on what God wanted me to do with my life, since what I wanted to do was out of the picture. I could discover things on my own, even if I couldn’t show with a grade that I knew them.”