Essay / Education

Excellence: Expected in the NFL, Elitism in Education

As the NFL draft is almost upon us it is hard not to notice the focus sports fans and sports writers have on excellence. Potential professional football players are be scrutinized by owners, coaches, writers and fans about what they could bring to their respective teams. The NFL Combine is where those players are most carefully examined.

At the NFL Combine every college player who desires to be in the NFL is timed in the 40 yard dash, the standing vertical jump and the amount of times he can bench press 225 lbs. (just to name a few of the skill drills they go through). Every potential NFL player has prepared himself so that he excels during the NFL Combine. A good performance at the Combine can move a player up in NFL Draft. A poor performance could mean that the player goes undrafted. No NFL team is going to draft a player who is not excellent.

Athletic competition is not a place where laziness and mediocrity is tolerated. Excellence and hard work is the expectation of everyone involved. When someone gets cut from a varsity squad for the most part everyone understands the student was just not good enough to make the team. In educational situations excellence is often seen in a much different light.

Students are often mocked for the fact that they do well in school. My students often hide the fact that they are a member of an honors society or in an honors program. While they are personally proud of their academic acumen and achievements, they keep their abilities close to their chest. Educational egalitarianism is causing our best and brightest to be embarrassed by their skills. I like what Jacques Barzun has to say about this societal phenomenon.

Jacques Barzun is a Faculty Emeritus at Columbia University. He has written extensively in the fields of education and intellectual history. Here are some of his thoughts on academic excellence in an article entitled “Schooling No Mystery” (which can be found in the book Begin Here: The forgotten conditions of Teaching and Learning):

Forget Education. Education is a result, a slow growth, and hard to judge. Let us talk rather about Teaching and learning, a joint activity that can be provided for, though as a nation we have lost the knack of it. The blame falls on the public schools, of course, but they deserve only half the blame. The other half belongs to the people at large, us—our attitudes, our choices our thought-cliches.

Take one familiar fact: everybody keeps calling for Excellence—excellence not just in schooling, throughout society. But as soon as somebody or something stands out as Excellent, the other shout goes up: “Elitism!” and whatever produced that thing, whoever praises that result is promptly put down. “Standing out” is undemocratic.

It is pervasive aspect of our culture to often mock the student achievers or anyone who is excelling at their academic work—even though we want our students to be well educated. We often call them “nerds” or social outcasts. Certainly they are not the popular students. Barzun goes on to point out how we handicap our scholarly stars while praising our athletes for their brand of excellence:

Why should children make an effort to shine in school when shining is a handicap? Shining, that is, in schoolwork. In athletics, it’s another story. We do not cheer the duffers; there is no cry of elitism near the playing field. We pay large sums to get the best and to see that it is duly praised. Never mind what the school superintendent is like, we need a first class coach and a good band. The people who insist on all this and supervise in very efficiently are those ultimately in charge of the schools, the school-boards, and behind them are the general public who want to enjoy exciting games and have their town excel.

We need to embrace a fundamental commitment to academic excellence. If we are to train up a society of thinkers who will become tomorrow’s educators and political leaders we must expect students to put in the same sort of effort our society expects on the field of athletic competition. We also should give them the same sort of encouragement. I am not expecting a group of cheerleaders at an academic decathlon, but we should hold all students to a high academic standard for their and ultimately societies good.

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