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Imagine a very different world from the one in which we live. A world in which the high school curriculum at most public schools includes required classes every day in the following subjects: painting, sculpture, music, poetry, dance, team sports and individual sports. Once a week or so, just for cultural enrichment, students can also take an hour of study in courses like history, social studies, science or mathematics. When money gets tight, people look first to these less important subjects—history, science, math—for the necessary cuts. In this world, admission to the best colleges and universities depends on students doing well in two examinations, one in the arts, the other in physical education. Excellent high school students can also take “advanced placement” courses for college credit in topics like advanced sculpture, abstract painting, advanced track and field, or the ontological implications of the Princeton Offense.[1]

Now a visitor from our own world might justly criticize this system for overlooking the enormous importance for human well-being of subjects such as mathematics, science, social studies or history. But if one of the citizens of that imaginary world were to visit us, might he not argue that by giving short shrift to core subjects like the arts and physical education in our own educational systems, we cut our children off from a core set of abilities, sensibilities and understandings crucial to their development? And might his criticisms of our own educational culture not be equally justified?

But the world we have imagined is not, in fact, entirely imaginary. Its basic feature—the conviction that the two core disciplines without which a young person cannot reach full humanity are the arts and athletics—was exactly the conviction held by the ancient Greeks, or more specifically, the ancient Athenians, who produced some of the greatest poets, playwrights and sculptors in history, in addition to giving us the Olympics, gymnasiums and democracy. For the Greeks, the two foundations of a young person’s education were what they called mousike and gymnastike. Mousike referred not just to what we today call “music” but to all the arts under the sway of the muses (including philosophy), while gymnastike referred to all those activities that occurred at the gymnasium, which means literally the place of nakedness, since all sports in those days were conducted in the nude.

This emphasis on the arts and physical training as crucial ingredients in education leaves just the slightest trace today in the well-known, but usually ignored, cliché about developing a sound mind in a sound body. The point of that cliché seems to be that the arts develop the mind, while athletics develop the body, and insofar as we are both mind and body, the development of both is important. In fact, this assumption may help explain just why physical education is so marginalized today, for both our predominantly Christian religious tradition as well as a prominent strand of our philosophical tradition—running at least as far back as Descartes—have taught that our real essence, who we really are as individuals, has to do with our souls, not our bodies. Given that conviction, it is hardly surprising that the adequate development of the body and its various sensitivities and abilities would become less and less important over time.

But it is not quite right to characterize the Greek view as simply an early version of the “sound mind, sound body” tradition. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates and his two young interlocutors, Glaucon and Adeimantus, build up their “city in speech” to discover what justice is, and they consider at length what an adequate education would be. Socrates begins by accepting the deeply held Athenian conviction that the core of education should be mousike and gymnastike, and asks just what sort of arts and gymnastics should be taught. First, Socrates rejects Glaucon’s suggestion that the point of education in the arts and in gymnastics is to develop the soul and the body, respectively—the very position we often pay lip service to today. The point of gymnastike is not to develop the body, but the soul. Certain personal qualities can best be inculcated through athletic experience—the virtue of courage, of course, but also qualities of endurance, of self-discipline, of mental toughness.

Socrates also emphasizes a telling peculiarity of the Greek language. The Greek word for education is paideia. And the Greek word for play is paidia. Paidia and paideia, play and education. It is as if the Greeks build into their language a conviction about the intimacy of the two ideas. In the Republic, Socrates emphasizes and even strengthens this intimacy. Education, paideia, he says, will not be successful unless it is also paidia, play. Education, to be successful, must be literally playful, full of play.

Plato understood full well what every athlete learns quickly, that the oft-expressed opposition between play and seriousness makes no sense at all. In an intriguing remark in his dialogue, the Laws, Plato has his lead character, a man simply called “The Athenian Stranger” (perhaps Socrates, returned from the dead) remark to the sober-minded Cretans with whom he is discussing the proper education of youths that “the real opposite of play is neither work nor seriousness, but war.” Especially given the common use of the vocabulary of war to describe athletic experience (the football staff room at Trinity College in Connecticut is referred to as “the war room”), this remark should be at least as thought-provoking to us today as it must have been to the Greeks. What would our play have to become if “the real opposite of play is neither work nor seriousness, but war”? At the end of the passage, Plato has the Stranger conclude that we humans should “spend our lives making our play as noble and beautiful as possible.” What would that mean for an adequate education and a fulfilling life?

Like many people, no doubt, my experience with athletics—in my case with basketball, culminating in my years on the Princeton team—was literally defining. Looking back, I became who I am largely through my experience of and passion for basketball. It is no doubt true that the courses I took at Princeton and my occasional involvements with the professors there changed who I was in demonstrable ways, leading me to decide, for example, to become a philosophy professor rather than, as I had originally projected when I chose philosophy as a major, a lawyer. But during all those important transitional moments, my deepest commitment was to basketball and my team. If anyone in those days had asked me “Who are you?” I would have answered without the slightest hesitation: “I’m a basketball player.” Like so many, I committed countless hours of practice to my sport. I also committed my energy, my intellect, my emotions and my sense of self. I learned about other people, about trust and betrayal, about honesty and dishonesty, about how selflessness was not a “sacrifice” of myself but a fulfillment of my real possibilities, about how after a disappointing loss, the sun will still rise. Above all, I learned about myself, about who I was and who I wanted to become.

All this I learned through my basketball experience at Princeton. And yet, during all my four years at that great institution of learning, not a single one of my professors ever said to me of this experience so deep, so passionate, so defining of who I was, that I should think about it, that I should consider it part of my education. They seemed to regard the fact that I played basketball—if they even knew that I did—as “extracurricular.” The closest my basketball experience ever came to my formal educational experience was when professors would occasionally ask me for tickets to sold-out games. The world was telling me that education was one thing, athletics another, and that the two were not only different but even, and often, antagonistic. My basketball commitment, it was said implicitly and often even explicitly, “interfered” with my commitment to education.

After finishing graduate school, and after a three-year teaching stint at the University of Toronto, I came to Trinity College in Connecticut. As I got to know the student athletes there, I began to feel that I did not want them to have to say that not a single one of their professors had challenged them to think about their athletic commitments and experiences, to make it part of their education. So I developed a course entitled “Philosophy of Sport,” which I have been teaching there ever since.

The Philosophy of Sport is not a course about professional sports or professional athletes; it is about the students’ experience of sport. I tell them on the first day of class that I do not want to hear the Michael Jordans, Mia Hamms and Lance Armstrongs of the world offered as examples of this point or that. The examples are to be their own, both positive and negative. After the opening class the students are asked to write a paper describing the most powerful positive experience of athletics that they have ever had. After the second class they are asked to describe the most powerful negative experience that they have ever had. In those opening assignments, the more superficial papers describe as their most powerful negative experience losing some game or other. The more insightful describe some experience with a miserable little-league coach who almost drove them away from sports for good, or some terrible injury that will limit their activity for the rest of their lives.

This lesson of the double-edged nature of sport is brought home in the first major section of the course, on the general topic of sport and ethics. Lovers of sport believe that sports teach wonderful ethical values: teamwork, self-discipline, honesty, courage, magnanimity in both victory and defeat, etc. The catch is that passionate opponents of athletics agree that sports teach ethical values—all the wrong ones! Sports, they say, teach us to mindlessly obey authoritarian coaches, to break rules and hurt opponents, to ruin our bodies all for the sake of ultimately meaningless victories. So the real question here cannot simply be whether sports teach ethical values. Of course they do—the question is what kind.

Everyone knows the cliché that “great coaches are great teachers.” This cliché, however, harbors an unsettling truth: bad coaches are also teachers. The whole being of an athlete is involved in his sport. His body is involved, surely, but also his intellect, his emotions and his sense of self-identity. Because, then, of the very nature of athletics as involving the whole person, coaches are often able to involve the athlete’s whole being in a way that those of us who are classroom teachers struggle mightily, and with relatively rare success, to achieve. Is it any wonder, then, that the teaching they do will have deeper and more lasting effects?

But to reflect on sport is to reflect on more than the direct lessons of athletic experience; it is also to confront some of the widest questions of ethical life. I sometimes ask, for example, how many of the students in my class are opposed to performance-enhancing drugs. Not surprisingly, they almost all raise their hands—including, no doubt, those who are actually using them. One of the reasons often given is that it is somehow “unnatural,” that athletic competition should test our natural abilities as human beings, not our ability to artificially enhance ourselves with pharmaceuticals. Another is that using these enhancers gives the user an unfair advantage over non-users. But remember Chariots of Fire? Back in the Teens and Twenties of the last century, the idea of practicing for a competition was regarded as unnatural and unfair. The Olympic ideal was just to show up on the day of the race, roll up your pant legs at the starting line and see who was fastest. The character in the movie who actually practices for the race was despised for being untrue to the ideal of sport! More recently, in the Seventies, one of my students was a linebacker on the football team. In those days the idea was just catching on that weight training might be useful for sports other than weight lifting itself. In the midst of our discussion, the linebacker raised his hand and with some passion asserted to the class that this was exactly why he was not going to lift weights, that when he went out on the football field, he wanted it to be the real him out there, not some artificial monster built up by weight training! So should we today ban weight training as well as practice? I raise these examples to show students that when they make decisions regarding their athletic lives they confront the complicated and often painful ethical issues of life itself—that athletic competition prepares us not for war, as General MacArthur used to say, but for the complexities of a thoughtful life.

Let me briefly mention, for instance, the fraught issue of race. No sport is in and of itself inherently racist, as anyone can see (except perhaps Tramm Hudson, the Florida politician who recently claimed that African-Americans cannot swim). But just as obviously, there has been and still is racism in sport. That racism obviously derives not from sport itself but from social problems that spill over into sports. That’s the easy part. But is there anything happening within the very structure of the students’ athletic experience that, if they will only think about it, should act as a resistance to racism?

When I was growing up in Philadelphia, I and my like-minded friends used to travel around the city from court to court looking for good games. In Philadelphia—in those days at least—the custom of the basketball court was “winners stay”: the winning team got to continue playing, the losers had to sit and wait their turn. Now, in that environment, it very much mattered who you chose to play with. You could, of course, preserve your racism, choosing (in my case) an inferior white player as a teammate rather than the superior black player standing nearby. But you’d probably lose. And on the crowded courts of Philadelphia, losing meant sitting, often for an hour or more. Slowly but surely it dawned on me that in my basketball experience there really was a better standard at work, that choosing teammates by the quality of their jump shot rather than their race really was a superior way of judging people. I began in that way to question the racism all around me.

The measure of a man is his jump shot: a silly measure, surely, outside the confines of the basketball court. But that silly measure of a man embodied an important principle, that a superior measure of human worth was the specific abilities, the specific excellences, that were needful in our given context. Why not, I began to ask myself, take that principle into my larger life? Why not assess my fellow humans not in terms of their race or ethnic background but with respect to their excellence as human beings?

In a way, the ultimate goal of the entire Philosophy of Sport course is self-knowledge, the very self-knowledge that old Socrates regarded as the ultimate goal and foundation of philosophy itself. I want my students to be constantly asking what they can learn about themselves through their athletic experience. We often read a book by a psychiatrist, Arnold Beisser, entitled The Madness in Sport. In it, Beisser uses as case studies a number of athletes whom he treated, and he relates their particular pathology to aspects of their athletic lives. Here are a few questions that arise in the context of Beisser’s analyses: Do you prefer team or individual sports? What does that tell you about yourself? Do you only get interested when an activity becomes a competition? Are you bored by jogging until it becomes a race? Or do you prefer the non-competitive forms of running, skiing or the other activities in which you engage, finding that competition usually ruins the fun for you? What does that tell you about yourself? Do you only do your best in competition when you work yourself into a rage against your opponent? At the end of a close game, do you want the outcome to be in your hands, or do you tend to shy away from that burden? What does that tell you about yourself? And so on.

Self-knowledge of this sort is not something that we pursue simply because it is theoretically interesting to know a little bit about ourselves. The point is to turn ourselves into better people, to improve as human beings. And herein lies the single greatest lesson we can learn from athletics, for the mark of every true athlete, surely, is his passionate desire to continually improve. I’ve read and heard several accounts by players who played under the legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, and they all say the same interesting thing, that Wooden, this amazingly successful winner of so many national championships, never, ever, talked about winning. He talked only and always about improving: after every practice, after every game, you should be able to say to yourself that you’re a better player than you were before you began. If you fulfill that goal, he seemed to believe, winning will take care of itself.

This strenuous and passionate desire to improve is the hallmark and pride of every true athlete. But, I ask my student athletes, why limit that quality to their athletic lives? Suppose they take that passionate commitment to improve every day and transfer it to their studies, to their careers, to their relationships and family lives? Shouldn’t the drive for excellence be transferable to the only goal that really matters, the living of an excellent life?


    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. One could begin with the aphorism of the Presocratic philosopher, Heraclitus (500BC), panta rhei, “everything flows,” and perhaps conclude with the wisdom of The Beatles, “I get by with a little help from my friends.”
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