Student Well-Being

Extracurricular Choices for a Global Age

By John R. Gerdy — June 26, 2009 6 min read

Every aspect of K-12 schooling needs to be evaluated to determine its effectiveness in meeting this quest for both excellence in achievement and depth in human development. This means that funding priorities for extracurricular programs as well as for core academics must be scrutinized, particularly our tendency to fund large sports programs that serve a small number of elite athletes at the expense of broad-based programs in music and the arts.

Honesty and the willingness to face hard facts will be required. Our blind acceptance that athletics can be justified for inclusion in the education program simply because of popularity and social prominence should be questioned. Educators and citizens will have to weigh, in light of the skills needed in this competitive new century, the relative effectiveness of investments in arts programs and those in interscholastic athletics.

The primary justification for elite sports programs is that they are uniquely suited to developing important “character” traits, such as discipline, teamwork, communication, and leadership skills. But it is misguided to think that one can acquire these traits only, or even best, through athletic participation. Playing in a band, for example, develops the same teamwork and leadership skills that playing on a basketball team would. There is little difference between working with others to achieve a desired sound than working together to win a game. The traits necessary to be a successful athlete—discipline, hard work, perseverance, and teamwork—are identical to those required to be a successful musician. As a Bob Dylan lyric puts it, you “got to play your harp until your lips bleed.”

Athletics are also said to keep students, particularly low-income and low-performing students, more “engaged” with school and thus less likely to drop out. But any student involved in extracurricular activities, whether it is football, jazz band, or theater, will be more engaged with school.

This issue deserves a closer examination than it gets in most schools. At too many, a gulf exists between the athletic and academic communities. Athletes are widely viewed as “dumb jocks,” and a distinct “us vs. them” attitude prevails in many athletic departments. Coaches often think of academic requirements as a “nuisance” to the player’s athletic development and efforts to win games. And far too often athletes are passed through the system, regardless of whether they can do the work. Not only does this reinforce for the athlete the self-destructive notion that athletic performance, rather than academic excellence, is the key to preparing for a productive life, but it also undermines the integrity of the educational institution.

Further, a growing number of coaches are not teachers (by some estimates, fewer than half). Thus, they have little appreciation for, or understanding of, the schools’ educational culture and academic expectations. If academics are viewed as an obstacle to be overcome, rather than a value to be embraced, is the “engagement” that sports participation is said to provide a positive one? As athletic programs have become increasingly competitive, they may have become more about winning than learning, thus diminishing their effectiveness as an educational tool.

Ultimately, when we discuss the relative merits of athletics and the arts as extracurricular activities, the central issue must be their effectiveness as teaching tools in preparing students for success in the 21st-century economy. It is instructive to note that the driving forces behind the inclusion of sport in our schools were the industrialists of the early 1900s. They looked upon sport less as an educational tool, however, than as a means to train, socialize, and control an industrial-economy workforce. Factory owners didn’t long for line workers who were great thinkers; they preferred that they be loyal, dependable, able to work as part of a team, and, above all, obedient.

Today’s economy requires strong minds developed in classrooms, rather than strong bodies developed on playing fields. What Andrew Carnegie considered good worker skills for advancing America’s economic interests in 1900 are inadequate to advance the country’s future economic interests, as represented by business leaders such as Apple Inc. founder Steve Jobs.

Developing creativity and innovation in our workforce was an overriding theme in the National Center on Education and the Economy’s 2006 report “Tough Choices or Tough Times.” In it, members of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce described the country’s evolving needs. “This is a world in which a very high level of preparation in reading, writing, speaking, mathematics, science, literature, history, and the arts will be an indispensable foundation for everything that comes after for most members of the workforce,” they wrote. “It is a world in which comfort with ideas and abstractions is the passport to a good job, in which creativity and innovation are the key to the good life, in which high levels of education—a very different kind of education than most of us have had—are going to be the only security there is.”

Against this backdrop, a strong case can be made that music programs yield a more direct return on educational dollars invested than do elite athletic teams. Research tells us that involvement in music programs not only has a direct impact on math, reading, and logic skills, but also that an integrated arts curriculum has positive effects on teacher attitudes and school climate. A more lively, colorful, and musical school is a more enjoyable environment in which to teach and learn. Such programs’ most important impact, however, is on individual creativity. Music and the arts help develop an ability to “think outside the box” and to imagine possibilities without limits.

As technology drives our headlong rush into the future, the issues we face in science, education, health care, international relations, and the environment will become more intricate and interrelated. Gaining the ability to solve increasingly complex problems will require a corresponding increase in the creativity of those who will be addressing them. And the most effective educational tool we have for this is human development through music and the arts. Here, an appreciation for diverse cultures is also fostered, contributing to the global competencies young people will need to succeed economically and to do their part in solving global dilemmas.

Effectively integrating music and arts education into the curriculum is as much about teaching students to think creatively and with a global perspective as it is about appreciating the arts.

Yet, despite the fact that involvement in arts education develops precisely the skills needed to compete in today’s global economy, program funding continues to be slashed. Meanwhile, budgets for interscholastic athletics remain mostly non-negotiable.

The point is not that athletics cannot produce positive educational results; rather, the issue is whether or not they are the best way to spend increasingly precious “extracurricular” resources. If involvement in music and arts education yields more direct and profound educational benefits in this modern age than elite athletics, shouldn’t we quit turning the volume down on these programs and start ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to join the band and sing along?

A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week

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