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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Education and Sports

The news remains full of things to blog about, but today I'll take a moment to go in a new direction, regarding the past, present and future of American higher education--with specific reference to my own Alma Mater.

Long ago, clergy founded universities to study the meaning of life. In nineteenth-century America a new kind of institution developed: the seminary or normal school, designed to train teachers. One did not in fact need to attend one of those institutions to run a town schoolhouse, but it probably made better positions available. I was quite astonished some years back to find that my maternal great-grandmother, Hannah McLean Greeley, had worked her way through Mount Holyoke Seminary in the midst of her teaching career. (She was born in 1848 and died in 1906.) Meanwhile, in the second half of the nineteenth century, a network of boys' and girls' schools modeled on English public schools sprung up around the northeast, and began feeding students into what is now the Ivy League. It was in the late nineteenth century that a recognizably modern curriculum began to develop, based upon modern languages and history rather than either religious texts of the classics.

Early in the twentieth century, however, came another most fateful development: the invention of intercollegiate athletics, led by football. In the early years of university sports, the leading academic institutions fielded the strongest teams, but by the 1930s that had changed. The athletic powerhouses became the great state schools of the Midwest and the Far West, and a number of Jesuit institutions in both the Midwest and the Northeast. In the mid-20th century, one leading university, the University of Chicago decided to be different. It dropped football, in which it had remained a power for a long time, and explicitly decided to focus upon academics. In the Ivy League only the University of Pennsylvania maintained a serious football program into the 1950s. By that time college basketball was also on the national radar, and it really took off thanks to television in the 1960s. Meanwhile, thanks to the GI bill, the baby boom, and relatively cheap higher education in the 1950s and 1960s, student populations had exploded.

During the last forty years our elite schools have shamelessly exploited the educational monopoly their reputation has given them. Although the student population has continued to increase, amazingly, no new elite institutions have emerged. Growth is occurring elsewhere, because the modern university has a new priority: money. Higher education is big business, and the growth is occurring in mass-production for profit on line outfits like the University of Phoenix. Federal loans finance an enormous amount of higher education, and these new schools have managed to get their hands on a lot of that money. There is indeed a lot of talk out there about a higher education bubble--but that is a subject for another time.

Two of the ways in which colleges try to improve their bottom line and hire more administrators--which is the single biggest source of their higher costs--are by improving their US News rankings, and fielding competitive sports teams. The US News rankings may be the worst thing that has happened to higher education. No good college or university should have to worry about attracting students. For most of the twentieth century students simply flocked to them. Now universities are competing with respect to facilities, dining halls, menus, and dozens of other factors that have nothing to do with education. Larry Summers, the former President of Harvard (and an economist), referred to his students as "customers" whose tastes had to be respected. He was speaking for most of his peers.

Big-time athletics, however, is where the real money is, thanks to television contracts. Harvard has emerged over the last two decades as both the richest and the greediest institution in the land, pioneering the new model of endowment management that some of my classmates and I have campaigned against for a decade. I am not surprised that some one, in the last five years or so, decided to upgrade the basketball program. And so it was that, two nights ago, I discovered that Harvard was playing New Mexico, a favored team, in the NCAA tournament. And the irony, I must admit, is that while I don't think this is where Harvard men belong in March, I was emotionally engaged, and, yes, thrilled when they pulled out an upset victory.

I was also intrigued by the commentary. The commentators noted that Harvard had invested in a top-quality coach, Tommy Amaker, who had played at Duke and coached at the University of Michigan, in 2007, in the midst of the Summers era. Sure enough, within two years Amaker had been cited by the NCAA for recruiting violations, which Harvard eventually had to acknowledge. Then, last year, two of his top recruits were caught in the Government Department teaching scandal, in which students were evidently coached by teaching fellows to take the computerized exams in a notoriously easy course, and more than 100 of them were forced to withdraw from school. (Harvard has always had a policy, which I support, that almost nothing is sufficient to earn permanent expulsion from school, and those students will return.) The commentators expressed amazement that the program had survived the loss of two top players and still won the Ivy League title and was now playing in the NCAA. They also said again and again that Harvard got there by lowering admissions standards.

Now that, I'm here to tell you, was, shall we say, a half truth. The athletic department at Harvard has always had a separate set of admissions standards for elite sports, going back at least to the 1960s when I arrived and probably a good deal before that. The football team drew on talent from all over the Boston area, as emerges very clearly from the wonderful documentary about the most famous football game in Harvard history, Harvard Wins, 29-29. But as I discovered as a faculty member in the late 1970s, the most questionable admissions practices involved Harvard's highest-profile team, the hockey squad. They too drew their talent from the Boston area, and some of them, I had occasion to learn, had academic credentials fully comparable to those of big-time college football or hockey stars. Harvard, in short, had lost its athletic virginity long before Tommy Amaker arrived on the scene.

Schools field athletic teams for two reasons: they bring in tv revenue (I don't have the time this morning myself, but perhaps some reader can tell me how much Harvard's NCAA appearance is worth), and they excite the youthful passions of alumni, who can therefore be counted upon to increase their contributions. That won't happen with me, but I was very excited nonetheless to see Harvard play so intelligently--really--down the stretch the other night, cleverly exploiting its strengths, particularly three-point shooting, to defeat a highly favored opponent. You see, I'm human too--I wish Amaker had never been hired, I wish Harvard would scour the country for the most effective teachers in the Humanities (the way James Bryant Conant did in the 1950s), and I wish they could restore their genuine educational excellence so that no one would dare teach the kind of course that led to the cheating scandal. But I still loved seeing my alma mater win. Harvard tips off against Arizona at 6:10 this evening at Salt Lake City, and I'll be watching.


PJ Cats said...

Dear Mr Kaiser,

thanks again for a wonderful column. I couldn't help but smile at the admission of your own humanity. Who wouldn't? Anyhow, as you say, there's lots of other stuff going on. I'd like to point out to you two items I stumbled upon on my round through the news today. The first is the NYT column of Ross Douthat: http://tinyurl.com/cdusy5e (I shortened the URL, copy/paste should get you right there). The second is the link that mr Douthat put in there to another item about the polical backlash after the Iraq/Afghanistan wars. http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/the-gops-vietnam-212/ I think that mr Douthat column makes a clever point that is easily overlooked. The other item supports his view quite convincingly. All in all, this gives some ground for optimism.
Well, cheers to you from a wintery, cold, windy, nasty Europe. Cyprus, yeah, that too... we still can't seem to reform the banks, we're stuck in a neo-liberal groove we really should shake. Politics, politicians react too slow. Only human too, I reckon...

Larry said...

I was sure we were doomed as a democracy once I realized that the corporatists now owned the media in this country. But if there was any hope that we could still survive that has all been dashed with the realization that they now control academia too.