‘School athletics at the center of attention devalues intellectual students’

Sociologist Randall Collins writes:

Anyone who has been to high school in the United States knows there is a prestige system, with the jocks and cheerleaders at the top, and the nerds at the bottom. The term “nerd” has no equivalent in foreign languages; here it means someone who is a grind, not part of the youth culture, not just deficient in athletics but inferentially lacking in sexual appeal and klutzy at social skills. With the rise of the high-tech economy and dissident counter-culture movements this hierarchy has gotten somewhat blurred, but it still has a very strong hold in the way American schools operate. Successful school teams are the way a school—from high-school up through university—gets a public image and public support; and it is the main school-spirit-building activity inside the school. Athletics are sacrosanct, as the center of most schools’ image, prestige, and money.

There are exceptions: tech schools like M.I.T. and Cal Tech opt out of that system entirely; some elite colleges (mostly Ivy League and nearby) have so much reputation for their graduates going to the top of the corporate and political worlds that they don’t need famous athletic teams. As I will argue later, these are seeds for an American academic system that would replace our current one, if the sports-centered school system self-destructs over the professionalization of athletics.

Murray Milner (University of Virginia sociologist) did a massive study of prestige hierarachies at high schools across the country. He went on to develop an explanation of why jocks and cheerleaders are at the top, and serious students near the bottom. Games by a school team are the one activity where everyone is assembled, focusing attention on a group of token individuals who represent themselves. Games also have drama, plot tension, and emotion, thus fitting the ingredients for a successful interaction ritual. Predictably, they create feelings of solidarity and identity; and they give prestige to the individuals who are in the center of attention. Jocks are the school’s heroes (especially when they are winning). Cheerleaders are their number-one worshipers, high priestesses to the cult, sharing the stage or at least the edge of it. And they are chosen to represent the top of the sexual attractiveness hierarchy, hence centers of the partying-celebration part of school life—out of the purview of adult teachers, administrators, and parents.

In contrast, outstanding students perform mostly alone. They are not the center of an audience gathered to watch them show off their skills. There are no big interaction rituals focusing attention on them. Their achievement is for themselves; they do not represent the school body, certainly not in any way that involves contagious emotional excitement. The jocks-&-partying channeling of attention in schools devalues the intellectuals. When it comes to a contest between the two, the athletic-centered sphere always dominates, at least in the public places where the action is. The social networks of intellectual students are backstage, even underground. *

* These are not the only identity-groups among students; there are also the theatre crowd, musicians, druggies and counter-culture types, thugs, working class kids and part-time job-holders looked down upon by the fun-and-consumption culture of middle-class kids. Thus nerds tend to be more in the lower-middle of the school prestige hierarchy than at the absolute bottom. See Milner [2004] for details.

Not surprisingly, the majority of American students who could go either way in emulating athletic/partying or intellectual stars, choose the former and downplay the latter. In the era of increasing competition over admission to higher-ranking colleges, most students in the middle prestige levels aim for a respectable level of academic performance (only the top jocks can afford to be largely oblivious to grades); but they don’t pour themselves into it. They are surrounded by counselors and easy-grading teachers who sympathize with the existing prestige system, who make sure they don’t have to work too hard on academics.

* Arum and Roksa [2011] found that American college students average only a few hours of studying per week. This does not hurt their grades much, as professors have adapted to their clientele by giving fewer and easier exams and papers. And what they learn does not sink in or last long; students retested a year later retained very little of what they once knew. All this has taken place during a period in history when the percentages of the youth cohort who attend undergraduate colleges has risen to over 60%, with those attending graduate and professional schools rising proportionately. This is credential inflation, where the value has declined of a high school diploma, undergraduate degree, or even an M.A. (or for science fields, even a PhD, which now is only preliminary to getting a post-doctoral fellowship). It is a race in which the finish line keeps receding into the distance as more students compete at each level. Universities do well (and professors get paid) as long as they have plenty of paying students (including those subsidized by student loans); it doesn’t matter how little they learn as long as it fits the average that moves them along the pipeline. Grade inflation and lax standards are a way that schools adapt to a system in which there is a great deal of competition to move from one level to another, but this is mostly on formalities rather than what they actually learn.

Ethnographic studies of student life (by young-looking researchers living in the dormitories) show how the culture operates on the ground. Armstrong and Hamilton’s Paying for the Party [2013; see also Moffatt 1989; Sanday 2007] shows that kids from comfortable middle-class (or higher) families are happy to enter big state universities known for being party schools. These are places with big-time athletic programs, football and basketball teams playing in huge stadiums, surrounded by school rituals, partying, an active sex life; they quickly learn how to coast through their classes. Students from working-class backgrounds have a harder time with it, balancing the partying with studying and part-time jobs, and they often drop out without a degree. Universities try to be attractive to students who can finance their own way, and to subsidized students too; outside of the most elite colleges, these universities get what name-recognition they have by their athletic teams and their appearance on TV. Having a team that is a contender generates the atmosphere of the college experience; party schools go in tandem with the big-time athletic schools. Universities pretend otherwise, but big-time athletics usually goes along with academic mediocrity; its sine qua non being sheer size of its student population, hence size of budget that can invest in big-time teams.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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