Beer and Circus: How Big-Time Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education — Murray Sperber

Federal Requests for Proposals (RFPs) like the Grant Competition To Prevent High-Risk Drinking or Violent Behavior Among College Students are like sheets of paper held up as protection against the hurricane of larger social forces. The program aims to “develop or enhance, implement, and evaluate campus-and/or community-based strategies to prevent high-risk drinking or violent behavior among college students,” but it’s facing a campus culture that, as Murray Sperber describes in Beer and Circus: How Big Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education, has shifted to drinking and fanatical attention to sports in lieu of learning (I couldn’t help but think of a classic piece from The Onoin, “You Will Suffer Humiliation When The Sports Team From My Area Defeats The Sports Team From Your Area,” which sums my feelings about sports I’m not actually playing).

The “How Big Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education” subtitle is slightly misleading: big-time college aren’t themselves crippling education, though they are a contributing facto. Rather, they combine with shifts in university priorities toward research, curriculums, graduate departments, and star professors that, combined with a negative feedback loop thanks to big-time sports and decreased state and federal funding support, leads to inferior undergraduate education at many big schools and big public schools in particular. Hence the “beer and circus” formulation that alludes to bread and circus, with beer deadening thought and circus in the form of sports. Sperber’s argument is not a bad argument, although it’s overstated—universities are not as callow as he makes them out to be. Furthermore, if students in the aggregate didn’t want beer and circus, they would vote with their feet and wallets, as many of the financially able and academically inclined do.

That last designation, “academically inclined,” is an important one: Sperber discusses the four loose categories students tend to fall into, with the collegiate wanting parties, Greek life, and sports, the academic wanting knowledge, the vocational wanting a better job, and the rebels looking for life fulfillment. I might add the “lost” group, or those who wandered into college as an extension of high school and don’t really know why they’re there except that their parents told them to go. These categories aren’t rigid, and students can shift from one to the other and carry traits from more than one, but they’re useful nonetheless. Sperber cites research efforts to explore the composition of schools based on those categories, and it appears that, at many big public schools, the collegiate and vocational students compose the vast majority and have at least since World War II. Schools in turn began shifting their priorities, which accelerated in the 60s and early 70s, and appears to have reached its apotheosis sometime around there.

There’s some danger of propagating a myth of the golden age, but Sperber does seem to have found a genuine shift, especially when he’s discussing funding priorities. The most useful section might be devoted to the culture gap between many of those who control university departments and their undergraduate students. In this respect, the academic outsiders of undergrad eventually become the professors. Here’s where I wonder if the mythological aspect is rising, since, as a percentage basis, the academically inclined might not have dropped any or much, but the sheer number of them simply hasn’t kept up with the collegiate or vocational, and consequently, their influence might have waned. Academic-types also probably can’t connect with professors as easily as they once might have and are more likely to be left adrift in vast classrooms Sperber analogizes to mass transit stations, with all the charming behavior that implies. At the same time, the gulf between undergrads and professors grows: most professors came from the academic culture, while their students don’t. Conflict naturally arises, and I’ve now experienced it—most often indirectly but occasionally directly; the instructors will snicker when they (we?) hear excuses like, “I couldn’t come to class because my sorority kidnapped me…” Such excuses can be especially galling when they come back to back with students who have real problems, like family medical emergencies. How should one respond, I can’t help but asking? There doesn’t seem to be an ideal way, in part because of different values—and I can’t help believing mine are superior. And it’s not easy to inculcate those kinds of values regarding critical thinking, writing, and the like on an industrial scale to people who chiefly want to party. The question becomes, “What should be done?” and the answers—discussed briefly below—seem likely to remain in the ethereal realm of ideas rather than the practical realm of implementation.

Obviously I’ve spent some time considering Sperber’s conclusions and reasoning. But, alas, a book like Beer and Circus reminds me of Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why in that both are unlikely to reach the people who need them most—in Bloom’s case, people who don’t or seldom read, and in Sperber’s case, people in positions of power at colleges or who are choosing colleges. The kinds of people most likely to read Beer and Circus are the academics, who are already opposed to the beer and circus mentality and don’t need to be convinced. We find a paradox: someone insightful enough to read this book and who knows something about large universities in the United States will probably already understand the problems it describes, while those who don’t see the problems or like beer and circus aren’t likely to read it.

So how could you decrease campus drinking and such? By now, the game-day culture is sufficiently entrenched that you probably can’t, but one could allocate more money to universities with the stipulation that the money a) not supplant existing teaching funds and—here’s the critical part—b) go entirely to support teaching, rather than research, athletic centers, administrators, and the like. It’s likely to be more effective than approaches like trying to prevent high-risk drinking or violent behavior through band-aids that don’t fix the fundamental problems underlying the behavior: a persistent focus among faculty on research, among undergraduates on each other, and with almost no one but grad students (like me) minding the undergrads. Small schools and honors programs help somewhat, but Sperber justifiably calls them “lifeboats.” Real change would cost more, take more time and effort, and require more full-time teachers and professors who are actually rewarded, socially and otherwise, for teaching. All that seems improbable: what’s more probable is business-as-usual, with books like Sperber’s marking time in unused libraries while most of the student body spends time on the field and in the stadium.

(Oh, and for more Onion-related mockery: see Shitload Of Math Due Monday, which is not unlike many comments I overhear at the gym.)

7 responses

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