Let ’em play

Sam Smith

This spring I graduate again from high school, this time vicariously, and one of the major lessons of this return trip has been a deepened appreciation of the role that sports and other extra curricular activities play In education. I no longer think of them, in fact, as extra-curricular at all. The category seems oddly discriminatory and, despite the skill with which academia bedizens its petty prejudices in the cloak of wisdom, it is anti-intellectual as well. To suggest that sports, drama, art, politics or community service are external to the curriculum of an educated person borders on yahooism. Absent these elements, education becomes a brutish parody of what it says it is, a motley collection of facts without context, without integration either with one’s own body and soul or with any human community.

I suspect, in fact, that some of the less appealing characteristics ascribed to the stereotypical yuppie are the result of a failure of this integration. The roots, in part, may be found in an education that, at best, did not value extra-curricular activities highly enough to see them other than as the first in an endless series of performances separating the successful from the not so.

For, in truth, extra-curricular activities can be a bad form of education. Micro-Lombardis of high school football have perverted the learning of discipline, cooperation and effort into a tool of self-aggrandizement. Arts programs have modeled themselves on Hollywood or Broadway. And there are campus politicians, such as the new rightists at Dartmouth, who have mainly learned the worst that polities have to offer.

Such problems, however, are not addressed by “no pass, no play.” Rather they reflect, in their own way, the fact that extra-curricular activities have been assigned to the slums of education instead of given the place they deserve as part of the basic curriculum.

If school activities were not so arbitrarily divided, if the relationship between what goes on in and out of the classroom was considered and respected, we might not find so many dichotomies. Academics might be enticed to face the issue, for example, of why schools teach the evils of totalitarianism in history classes and venerate it on the football field. Or why students in English class are made to read poets and novelists who lived and died in penury while encouraging show business values on the school stage.

Of course, “no pass, no play” is not new. I encountered it myself in college two weeks after I had been elected station manager of the campus radio station. I was informed that since I had also been selected for probation I was barred from any extra-curricular activities. Although I had to give up my administrative position, the invisible nature of radio permitted me (as with a good many of my similarly distressed colleagues) to continue full tilt on the air — under a pseudonym. I spent just as much time at the station, but I got my grades up as well. The main lesson I learned from no “pass, no play” was how to buck the system.

It was not a bad lesson, but it certainly was not the one that the academic community had intended, just as I suspect that the lessons learned from the current crop of “no pass, no play” laws will not be the ones intended.

Among the lessons that may be learned will be how society discriminates against those who do not fit its mold – either because of ethnic background, economics, physical or mental idiosyncrasies, or inclination. And since extra-curricular activities are too often used as early imprimaturs of success, the very student who is failing in the classroom will be forced to fail a second time outside the classroom as well.

If, on the other hand, one views these activities as part of the core, of education, then barring participation becomes as stupid and futile an act as banning students from English because they are flunking math. Further, one begins to see the connections between these activities and the conventional academic subjects, connections that can be exploited to make both more valuable. Perhaps the most striking characteristic of extra-curricular activities is that they provide a rare course in applied knowledge. The student in the classroom is tested primarily against a single criterion: the judgment of the teacher. Despite the enormous utility of this, it is hardly a typical example of how knowledge is used in adult life.

To take a simple case: consider a problem that you as a parent perceive at a school. Now think, truthfully, how you would describe and argue your feelings about that problem with the principal, a teacher, your child, another student, your spouse, a friend who has a student at the school, a friend who has a student at another school, a friend without children. The same knowledge you possess, the same feelings, must be translated in a variety of different ways to have either meaning or effect.

It is in the extra-curricular activities more than in the classroom that this sophisticated use of knowledge occurs. In the classroom, knowledge is organized according to a curriculum and in this sense the term extra-curricular is quite right. For in out-of-class activities, knowledge is acquired or transmitted much as in adult life — in a random, unorganized fashion that provides both excitement and frustration to that life. Learning to deal with this disorderly flow is an important part of becoming an educated adult. Further, extra-curricular activities provide training in what some psychologists have come to call social intelligence, which can include not only understanding the information that words give us, but the enormous variety of non-verbal data available to us ranging from interpreting the mood of a group to comprehending the meaning of a turn of the lip. To train students to only understand words and printed symbols is to cheat their education.

For the parent, there is a special virtue of extra-curricular activities: they permit the parent to enter the school life of the student in a manner no academic course offers. The parent relies on report cards, an occasional term paper and teacher conferences for some feeling of the what happens in the classroom. If my experience is at all typical, further investigation into the academic environment tends to produce curt, glib or over-generalized responses. But with extra-curricular activities, the interest of the parent is actively sought, whole dinner-table discussions can actually occur, and feelings can be truly expressed. Thus the extra-curricular activity becomes a rare experience that both parent and student can share, especially at a time when words on other subjects may be hard to come by. To a school administration this virtue may not seem a high priority; to parents, and even students, it can be priceless.

Further, I think many parents presume a broader and less rigid limit to education than some educators do — certainly more so than do many school boards and system administrators. Parents often define education in a non-curricular way — blending academic, social and cultural goals and values. It may sound vague to a professional but it is really only an amateur’s holistic vision. And it is a form of fraud for professional educators to suggest that these goals can be met without the aid of extra-curricular activities.

My own experience of late has been with drama and sports. I have found in them advantages that are either absent or weak in my childrens’ classroom learning or which have supplemented or strengthened what has occurred in the classroom; advantages that have led me to regard these activities not just as a source of sharing or pride, but as evidence that my sons’ schools are doing what they claim. As in the classroom, not always has the the lesson been learned, or learned well, but at least it has been taught.

In sports, my sons have learned to work in a group, to cooperate, and to understand and value their peers for a variety of reasons. In some cases this appreciation may come from their peers’ skill, in other cases their determination, helpfulness, or supportiveness. They have learned that in real life the penalty for failure of effort may not merely be a bad grade and annoyed parents and teachers, but the disappointment of a whole group whose respect and friendship you seek.

While learning to try harder, they have simultaneous learned how to fail. I watch my sons’ teams go down to defeat and think back to Little League years when a bad loss could cast a pall on the house for a whole day. No longer. They have also learned that success may not be an individual triumph at all, but a joint mystery, as with a soccer team that won its league championship not because it was blessed with stars but because this highly individualistic group of players developed a remarkable ability to make each other do better than they normally would and to become one for a common goal. It was more than a championship; it was a priceless lesson in the power of a community. to raise itself up collectively.

Sports also teach the importance of concentration; they require the absorption and use of a wealth of small data under extreme stress and time limits. They teach respect and understanding of the human body. And at a critical time of learning about one’s self, they can provide a confidence that may not be so easy to come by in other arenas.

Drama, like sports, requires a concentration equal to anything in the classroom. Like sports, functioning within a group is critical. Like sports, the lessons learned are not only applicable to traditional academic courses, but to becoming an educated adult.

One of these lessons is the ability to memorize. It is remarkable that, given the repeated need to memorize in school, so little time is spent developing the skill. One of the few places in school where one can learn how to memorize is during the production of a play.

Further, good drama teachers can introduce their students to sophisticated forms of character analysis that one would find in professional theatre schools. One of my sons was given an exercise that involved figuring out what the characters were really thinking while they were saying their written lines. This sort of study not only produces better actors and actresses but better English students. Once you have seriously acted a part in a play, whole new understandings await in your reading of other literature.

Drama also requires a level of perfection that can only come after one understands the importance of failing over and over again until you get it right. Even the brightest student, used to skimming material and spewing out the correct answer, can be brought to earth by this requirement. A good drama teacher will make even the best try to be better.

Finally, drama encourages the development of self-confidence at an especially timely moment. For both psychological and practical reasons, being able to “perform” may be one of the most useful things one learns in school.

Of course, extra-curricular activities can be abused by both students and school. But often this is because of a tendency to use them as a form of star-shopping, a tendency that “no pass, no play” only accentuates. If one is conscious of the danger, however, it is not hard to avoid. At my high school, there was not one spring play but a whole series of them. Every senior who wanted a significant part in a play got one, indeed was urged to take one. Every year, there would be surprises, as someone not considered a “drama type” turned in an especially good performance. I think many of us who were not “drama types” are glad today that someone pushed us into tryng it at least once.

As I await another high school graduation, I think back about the teachers who were the real influences of the last twelve years. And the names that come to mind include, far out of proportion, coaches and drama and music teachers. I can’t conceive of those 12 years without them, nor without them would I have considered that my son had received a decent education. Those school boards around the country that think otherwise are not raising educational standards, but lowering them by removing a part of what should be the basic curriculum of any student whatever their grade in math or English.


2 thoughts on “Let ’em play

  1. I just want to say that although I typically enjoy most things you write, I probably enjoy your writings on schools and education the most. I wish you and Jonathan Kozol and Alfie Kohn and Deborah Maier were in charge of the Dept. of Education, which would set about making itself NOT in charge of US educational policy but offer the kinds of insights and wisdom so terribly lacking in schools and school administrations today.–JMG

  2. I appreciated this column. I didn't appreciate all the time and attention that my athletic brothers got in high school, while I, the nerd, kept slogging away at studies. But now, I see now that we all had different things to learn and that things balance out eventually. So I won't recommend only physical training without the perversion of sports just yet. We need to be well-educated and physically healthy to cope with the future. I worry that our current sports programs are not the most effective ways to train young people for healthy lives.ss

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