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Academics v. Athletics in High School

By Walt Gardner — July 01, 2011 3 min read
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In the wake of relentless pressure to improve or risk losing taxpayer support, public schools are faced with hard choices. The dilemma was recently on display at Herbert H. Lehman High School in the New York City school system.

The football field at the Bronx campus is 20 yards too short for regulation contests (“At Bronx High School, Field Is 20 Yards Short of Being a Home,” The New York Times, Jun. 16). As a result, the team has been forced to play all its games on the fields of other schools. This has created an obstacle in building school spirit and support. (My letter to the editor, “20 Yards Short,” was published on Jun. 25.)

Despite the allocation of almost $5 million by the New York City Department of Education to renovate Lehman’s multipurpose athletic complex, the new field will still come up 20 yards shy because the additional land is purportedly owned by the Army Corps of Engineers. The football coach said the deficiency will only exacerbate the inconvenience and embarrassment that have long existed, and parents have threatened to file a lawsuit.

What’s disturbing about the whole affair is the inordinate weight placed on athletics at the expense of academics. It’s hard to get worked up about a short football field when classrooms are being neglected because of the district’s budget woes. Only in this country are athletics accorded such attention and adulation. Our competitors abroad have long found it strange that athletic ability plays such a strong role in awarding scholarships for college.

There are two arguments for placing such emphasis on competitive athletics. The first is that participation builds discipline, character and teamwork. That’s true. But the same goals can also be achieved by Academic Decathlons.

The second is that a strong, positive connection exists between athletic participation and academic achievement. But that’s only partially true. The relationship depends on the type of sport and the background of the students involved.

That’s why a Los Angeles Times news article about Granada Hills Charter High School in the San Fernando Valley offers a ray of hope (“Granada Hills wins national Academic Decathlon,” May 1). The story detailed how the school won the national title - its first. It beat a team from Texas in the Charlotte, N.C. final. The event marked California’s 18th national Academic Decathlon victory and the Los Angeles Unified School District’s 12th.

For the embattled district, the second largest in the nation, the prize couldn’t have come at a more propitious time. After a litany of missteps, the LAUSD has now notched more Academic Decathlon wins than any other school district in the U.S. The win also serves as evidence that the extracurricular hard work overwhelmingly associated with athletics sometimes gets headlines.

Yet despite the publicity, intellectual activities still take a back seat to athletic contests. In 1964, Richard Hofstadter received a Pulitzer Prize in Non-Fiction for Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (Vintage Books, 1962). He chronicled America’s long history of “resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.”

Pulling no punches, Hofstadter went on: “At times the schools of the country seem to be dominated by athletics, commercialism, and the standards of the mass media ... .” He calls this “the cult of athleticism, marching bands, and high-school drum majorettes.”

The development of intellect has always been seen as antithetical to egalitarianism. That’s why schools in this country resist differentiation among students. Schools in other countries begin separating students out as early as the end of elementary school. Singapore, for example, uses the results of its Primary School Leaving exam as the basis for determining which track students should follow.

You don’t have to be an elitist to recognize the danger that anti-intellectualism poses to the nation at this crossroads in its history. But try telling that to booster clubs.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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