Date of this Version
It comes to me as quite a surprise—and really a great shame—that honors and athletics are, as Sam Schuman describes, “often seen as, if not hostile, certainly wholly disconnected collegiate endeavors.” For more than thirty years I have had quite a different experience, which includes congratulating four long-distance runners and one Olympic speed-walker as honors valedictorians. I have always cultivated honors athletes, and coaches have always come to me directly to package athletes with honors scholarships. I may have reaped my rewarding experiences with athletes in part because I teach at a Division II NCAA campus where the coaches encourage players to do well academically; for instance, faculty members must sign all athletes’ attendance cards for every class session, and the athletes must attend daily study halls. But my sense that athletes make strong honors students is also a personal vision that comes from years of playing tennis and riding horses—often under the watchful eyes of my tennis- and equestrian-team students.
Let me begin by saying that I do everything I can to discourage competition among my students. Many have already been burdened with graderelated anxiety and stress, so the idea of fighting to get that A is not something I encourage. Oddly enough, the athletes adjust very well to an honors environment that is less about winning than about playing the game, a difference in perspectives that two writers have expressed particularly well. The first is George Orwell, who in 1945 published an article in the Tribune entitled “The Sporting Spirit.” Considering the climate of nationalism and “savage passions” of the mid-1940s, he entirely undermined the idea of sport as cultivating fair play. Instead, he argued that professional sport is “bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.” While the case may be overstated, it did arouse a wonderful argument among students in my freshman English course—particularly among the athletes. The discussion was led by a basketball player, who argued quite convincingly (especially given his height of 5’ 6”) that sport is a game played against oneself, to improve and grow as a player. This approach is close to the philosophy of an interesting new book, Play, by the second writer, Stuart Brown, psychiatrist and founder of the National Institute for Play. His research indicates that the activity of play “shapes the brain, opens the imagination and invigorates the soul.” It is not Orwell’s dark vision of winning that is suitable to honors but rather Brown’s elevating spirit of play that we want to encourage in our students. Among his discoveries is that play, like sleep, is “an essential, long-term organizer of brain development and adaptablity” (42). In play, he also finds the basis for experiencing pleasure and thus overcoming propensities to depression. Since both sleep deprivation and depression are chronic problems among college students, it would seem that engaging in play should increase positive attitudes. Indeed, among Brown’s most interesting findings is “evidence that play increases immune strength” (171).