David Brooks argues that our losing record at soccer/football actually shows how our social system beats out that of other countries. (Unfortunately, TimesSelect membership is required to read the whole article, but I’ll e-mail it to you if you ask nicely.)
Going into today’s World Cup match against Ghana, no American player has managed to put a ball into the back of the net, but the U.S. team does lead the world in one vital category: college degrees.
Most of the American players attended college. Eddie Pope went to the University of North Carolina, Kasey Keller attended the University of Portland and Marcus Hahnemann went to Seattle Pacific.
Many of the elite players from the rest of the world, on the other hand, were pulled from regular schools at early ages and sent to professional training academies. Among those sharp-elbowed, hypercompetitive Europeans, for example, Zinedine Zidane was playing for A.S. Cannes by age 16, Luis Figo was playing for Sporting Lisbon at 17, and David Beckham attended Tottenham Hotspur’s academy and signed with Manchester United as a trainee at 16.
David then goes on to argue that this demonstrates a broader understanding and use of the American higher education system in advancing our economy, culture, arts, and sports.
The upshot is that the competitive American universities not only became the best in the world — 8 out of the top 10 universities are American — they also remained ambitious and dynamic. They are much more responsive to community needs.
Not only have they created ambitious sports programs to build character among students and a sense of solidarity across the community, they also offer a range of extracurricular activities and student counseling services unmatched anywhere else. While the arts and letters faculties are sometimes politically cloistered, the rest of the university programs are integrated into society, performing an array of social functions.
They serve as business incubation centers (go to Palo Alto). With their cultural and arts programs, they serve as retiree magnets (go to Charlottesville). With their football teams, they bind communities and break down social distinctions (people in Alabama are fiercely loyal to the Crimson Tide, even though most have not actually attended the university).
State-dominated European universities, by contrast, cast much smaller shadows. A Centre for European Reform report noted “a drab uniformity” across the systems. Talented professors leave. Funding lags. Antibusiness snobbery limits entrepreneurial activity. Research suffers. In the first half of the 20th century, 73 percent of Nobel laureates were based in Europe. Between 1995 and 2004, 19 percent were.
Oh, good Lord. There’s two major problems here. Let’s deal with each in turn.
First, sports in universities do almost entirely the opposite of breaking down social distinctions.
Sociologist and historian Jerome Karabel recently published a massive book detailing how Harvard, Yale, and Princeton devised their admissions processes to weed out undesireable types of students. In the early twentieth century, noting that too many Jews were getting into the big three schools, they started to administer admissions tests (of which the SAT was one); to create offices of admission; to nurture and favor applicants
from the private schools like Andover, Exeter, St. Paul’s and so forth; and to emphasize demonstrators of “character,” such as participation in intervarsity sports. All these were areas of endeavor that initially kept the number of Jews (and later blacks, Asians, and so forth) low. (The exception was the standardized tests, which actually gave some of these groups a leg-up over the old boys in admissions.)
Sports were especially important, because they provided a particularly good arena in which to demonstrate and observe “character.” A man (because we’re initially only dealing with men here) who wasn’t the brightest star intellectually could still show himself to be the right sort of person by acting with good sportsmanship and such. By this, the universities were kept WASPier than they otherwise would have been. And, by the institution of the legacy system where the children of alumni get priority in admissions, the children of athletes can still get priority.
Karabel notes that the Big Three are important because the system they created largely became the system that all of American higher education came to use.
David Brooks argues that the sports programs build character. Karabel demonstrates that sports were used to “assess character.” So which is it? (My aim here is not to argue the positive or negative of sports programs in higher ed, just to question what their purpose is.) Karabel has evidence, Brooks does not. And if we could look at contemporaneous evidence, it seems that those college sports programs that unite anyone besides the alumni are also most proficient in teaching us about scandal than about character.
In such as system as David Brooks advocates, he would have been kept out. Brooks is, after all, Jewish, the very sort of person that college athletics and American higher ed endeavored to keep ghettoized for many years. (Brooks, however, attended the University of Chicago, an institution that has always prized intellectualism over pretty much everything. It’s not known as the MIT of the humanities for nothing.)
All right, second problem with Brooks’s argument. He only addresses the “best” universities. (And he only used one ranking — it’d be interesting to see him actually compile the various rankings out there for world universities. The US would still come out on top, I think, but not so definitively, and there’d be some surprises in the American rankings.) What are the best universities?
Traditional rankings, like the ones Brooks uses, measure money and reputation. An alternative ranking measures American universities as engines of social mobility, production of research, and inculcation of a service ethic. Ask not what your university can do for you but what your university can do for your country. Then, the vaunted competitive university system seems to do less well.
Only three schools in the 2006 U.S. News top 10 are among our highest-ranked: MIT, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania. In addition, while the private colleges of the Ivy League dominate most rankings of the nation’s best colleges, they didn’t dominate ours–only Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania made our top 10, and Princeton (tied with Harvard for the top slot on U.S. News’s list) was all the way down at #44, a few slots behind South Carolina State University.
Did you know, for example, that UC Davis comes in about the same as Harvard in terms of what each gives to society? Here’s the list:
Strikingly, that moribund and state-dominated sector does much better than Brooks would have you believe.
I’m all for having more educated soccer players than other countries. Let’s just not draw fallacious and undeserved conclusions about our social system from that fact.