Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Too much time and too much money spent on sports, students schedule classes around extracurriculars, etc.

Some of my colleagues were grumbling about such issues in a meeting I attended recently. It all sounded familiar somehow, and then I ran across this old report.

… it is reasonable to suppose that at least two thousand students out of the thirty-five hundred in Cambridge take some active part in one or more of the thirteen sports in which an enumeration of the number of participants was made. A second table in this report demonstrates that the receipts of gatemoney have nearly doubled in eight years, while the expenditures have increased only about 50 per cent. There are also tables which exhibit the expenditures for six years in each one of the following sports-foot-ball, base-ball, rowing, and track athletics. The Chairman calls attention to the fact that the expenditures for foot-ball are steadily increasing. A quarter part of all who take part in this sport are injured enough to lay them up for ten days on the average, and a much larger proportion of those who really play the game for the season are thus injured. The changes in the rules during the past ten years have tended to increase the number of injuries, rather than to diminish it. The temporary injuries are so numerous, that it is impossible to count on putting any particular eleven men into an important game on a given day. In order to provide the necessary number of substitutes for each place, the foot-ball squad often numbers sixty men. Hence large expenditures. The outfit for candidates grows more expensive, because they wear about fourteen pounds' weight of padding and armor. On the whole the game, under the existing rules, tends to become slower and less visible in its details, and therefore less interesting. Moreover, the ethics of the game, which are the imperfect ethics of war, do not improve. The martial axiom --attack the enemy's weakest point-inevitably leads to the deliberate onslaught on the cripple or the convalescent in the opposing line; and the habitual violation of rules, if penalties be escaped, is regarded by many as merely amusing. The Chairman's discussion of eligibility rules will be found interesting, if also somewhat discouraging. It is a cheerful feature of the report that a larger proportion of the gate-money than formerly has lately been used for the permanent imnprovement of the playgrounds. To drain and grade the large surface of the Longfellow marsh will be a work of time, andti will call every year for the expenditure of a considerable sum of money. 

Of all the competitive games in which the students are interested, foot-ball is the only one against which any serious objections can be raised; but there is increasing objection to the great exaggeration of all athletic sports. There is now a series of competitive games which covers the entire academic year; and the distraction of large bodies of students from the proper work of a university grows more intense and continuous year after year. …In the College and the Scientific School the afternoons of many students during far the greater part of the year are devoted to play, or to looking at the games which the most expert athletes are playing. The range of elective selection among the studies of the College is seriously limited, because of the desire of students, and therefore of teachers, to avoid appointments in the afternoons. Such are some of the evils which attend the prevailing exaggeration of athletic sports; but whenever the 
evils consequent upon this exaggeration are mentioned, it should also be mentioned that the outdoor sports on the average and in the mass do more good than harm; for they promote vigorous physical development, and provide invaluable safeguards against effeminacy and vice. 

Annual Report of President Eliot for the year 1901-02, pp. 39-41.

Kind of amazing, isn't it, that such a sports-crazed, anti-intellectual place could have survived into the 21st century as an iconic American college, a place that regularly wins the Putnam competition as well as the Ivy football championship. It seems like nothing has changed, including even the consternation of the faculty. Even the landscaping problems are the same -- Harvard is still trying to drain the "Longfellow marsh" enclosed by the bend of the Charles River!

This is still us. The way this all works together is not simple and requires constant vigilance. But it also requires a considerable degree of humility and sophistication on the part of the faculty about what makes us great, what has made us succeed.

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