How much of university life is about education? Gladwell, Bissinger, and the football-on-campus debate

In “College Football Should Be Banned: How Malcolm Gladwell and Buzz Bissinger won the Slate/Intelligence Squared live debate,” Katy Waldman writes that “Bissinger [who is most famous for writing Friday Night Lights . . .] reserved his ire for what he called ‘the distracted university’: the campus so awash in fun and fandom that it neglects learning. The United States faces the most competitive global economy in recent memory, he warned. An unhealthy obsession with sports handicaps our intellectual class.” This might be true, but most students don’t seem to care very much: In Beer and Circus: How Big-Time Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education, Murray Sperber says relatively few students attend college for primarily intellectual reasons. Most appear to view it as party time or a way to signal other characteristics.

Colleges have noticed this and responded, in the main, by inflating grades and reducing work. Campuses aren’t “awash in fun and fandom” because of some nefarious conspiracy: they’re awash in fun and fandom because most people appear to like those things more than they like discussing sonnets or the finer points of hash tables. There are obviously individual exceptions to this—like me, and most professors or would-be professors—but the overall trend is clear.

If students demand more serious classes, you’ll be able to tell by the number who stop taking weak business classes, comm, and sociology, and start taking hard core classes in the liberal arts and sciences. The overall trend, however, appears to be in the opposite direction in most disciplines and at most universities. This trend looks like it’s being driven more by students and their choices than by any other force. Until the chattering classes acknowledge that, we’re going to get hand-waving or evil-administrator explanations.

Still, I agree with Bissinger: college football should be ended or at least radically changed. But my reasons are different: it’s obvious that colleges should be paying the people who are professional athletes in all but name, and it’s unethical to pay coaches hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars while the effectively professional athletes receive only dubious “scholarships.” It’s also obvious by now that repeated sub-concussive blows to the head can cause CTE, and that football is inherently dangerous in the same way smoking is inherently dangerous. If adults want to take up inherently dangerous activities, they should be able to in most circumstances, and football is one of those circumstances. But they should at the very least be paid for the risks they choose to take.

That being said, if college sports are reduced to their proper scope, it’s not obvious what will replace them as a large-scale, collective ritual. Jonathan Haidt writes about the value of such rituals and the group experiences they inspire in The Righteous Mind, and American life has systematically removed such rituals from most people’s lives. Religion or military service once provided them, but now the former has waned for most people and the latter is a specialist occupation. Sports are one domain that expanded to fulfill the need many people have for arbitrary tribal affiliation and collective action. That might be one reason a lot of people react viscerally against the deserved criticism of college sports: such criticism feels like an attack on identity, not merely a discussion about economics and exploitation. I don’t really have a good method for negating or altering such feelings.

In the case of football, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if a scenario like the one Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier lay out in “What Would the End of Football Look Like? An economic perspective on CTE and the concussion crisis” occurs. Notice especially this line: “More and more modern parents will keep their kids out of playing football, and there tends to be a ‘contagion effect’ with such decisions; once some parents have second thoughts, many others follow suit.” Based on the CTE data I’ve seen, there’s absolutely no way I’d let one of my (currently hypothetical) children play football, and if my friends let their kids play, I’d be tempted to forward some of the CTE and football literature. Just as very few modern parents want their children to smoke, even if they do or did, I would not be surprised if, in a short period of time, very few modern parents want their children to play football.

Mid-July links

* More Wood here, by way of a few blogs. See my last post here. Find How Fiction Works here.

* I’d love to think that reading helps one become less socially awkward, as argued here. Repeat after me: correlation is not causation. But the article gives an example of how readers of a New Yorker story did better on social reasoning tests than those given a random essay, and this research complements that done on fiction and empathy.

As for the original claim, I will say that, speaking from experience, if reading helps one become less socially awkward, it certainly took a long time for the effect to kick in around these parts.

* I’d forgotten about The Literary Book of Economics: Including Readings from Literature and Drama on Economic Concepts, Issues, and Themes, but it complements the econ-for-dummies books I like and gives numerous examples of the intersection of economics and literature, since the two express one another more often than many of their respective practitioners think.

* Maybe I was too quick to dismiss the possible value of film as an agent of social change. This link courtesy of Freakonomics. Besides, in my post on The Devil’s Candy, I went into an extended rhapsody about Friday Night Lights, so perhaps I should be wary of too much bashing, despite Twilight of the Books.

(Before I concede too much, however, I’ll ask for the the paper detailing people’s tendency to protest the government thanks to T.V., or how T.V. is a medium easily monopolized by the powerful, as in Russia.)

* Speaking of film, this time combined with politics, Frank Rich in The New York Times has a great column that further explains why it’s hard for me to get ideologically attached to political parties in the U.S. or excited about politics:

You have to wonder what these same kids make of the political show their parents watch on TV at home. The fierce urgency of now that drives “Wall-E” and its yearning for change is absent in both the Barack Obama and McCain campaigns these days.

* You might notice that links having little if anything to do with books go at the bottom of link posts, today isn’t an exception. Clive Crook writes about education and immigration idiocy. Fortunately, this is an issue both parties can be wrong about, further explaining why I find it impossible to affiliate with either.

The Enchantress of Florence — Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence disappoints; Seldom has so great an ability to describe and so much seething talent been put to so little use as in this novel, where numerous sumptuous descriptions—though not so numerous or so skillful as Umberto Eco’s in Foucault’s Pendulum—add up to little more than yammering.

Take this artful idea, for example:

Travel was pointless. It removed you from the place in which you had a meaning, and to which you gave meaning in return by dedicating your life to it, and it spirited you away into fairylands where you were, and looked, frankly absurd.

Given that Jodha, who exists only in the mind of the king, says this, it works on multiple levels: she’s removed from the place where she would have meaning, and yet if she were removed from the emperor’s mind she’d have none because she wouldn’t exist—a neat paradoxical situation that nonetheless gets old a page later, when she says:

Now that the act of creation was complete she was free to be the person he had created, free, as everyone was, within the bounds of what it was in their nature to be and do.

That’s nice, but we’ve gone through pages and pages of meditation on what it means to be a creator and creative sort, and still more verbal games that become tiresome, especially with the double use of the word “free” in a situation that just doesn’t quite seem to merit it, even if we’re supposed to get the irony of her being “free” when by definition she can’t be free of his mind. Granted, she might eventually turn out to be a real person—this is magical realism, and I quit halfway after the fiftieth time I wondered, “What’s the point?”—but from here Jodha doesn’t go far.

Maybe there are more clever resonances among parts of the novel; the king thinks “No Man was ever free,” and yet the woman inside his head thinks she is free. Rushdie is striving for the intricate correspondence of Nabokov, but he doesn’t get there: the voice isn’t as firmly anchored to the characters as Nabokov in Pnin or Lolita, the characters are never quite so alive, and The Enchantress of Florence lacks that visceral sense of reality that a historical novel like Eco’s The Name of the Rose has. Adso of Melk sounds believable as a fourteenth century monk, immersed in the biblical culture that bound the thin educated class together at the time; in The Enchantress of Florence, we hear what could be a literary theorist natter, “They, too, saw their selves as multiple, one self that was the father of their children, another that was their parents’ child; they knew themselves to be different with their employers than they were at home with their lives—in short, they were bags of selves, bursting with plurality, just as he was.” What? Are we discussing modern workplace or family or feminist politics? And isn’t it obvious that the relationship one feels toward parents versus children is different? One could just as easily say, “You use different registers at work than you do at home.” Done. But I’m not sure Mughal kings were as concerned with this issue as middle-aged American accountants.

Yes, I understand what Rushdie shot for—Arabian Nights, The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron—except told through a post-modern, winking lens—and yet it doesn’t come together. Quotes from the novel don’t really show why, as much of the writing itself is good, but the plot at best meanders, and I feel like it shows utter dedication to the art of, say, cataloging obscure 80’s pop bands. Sure, you can, but should you? And does it matter? You can just imagine Rushdie pondering all the elements—mystical emperors, far off cities, narrative games, clever commentary on the point of myth versus legend—and all of them seeming so good and right. Then why did this omelette turn out so poorly when all the ingredients appeared so wonderful? It’s a question that, as I ponder, I can’t answer well.

The Enchantress of Florence comes with a bibliography, but this bit of scholastic detritus shows that you can study a period without living it. Contrast again The Enchantress of Florence with The Name of the Rose; the writer’s canard goes, “Write what you know,” and it’s often misinterpreted to mean that you should write autobiographically or something to that effect, but Eco has so long been immersed in the Middle Ages that he’s achieved the true writer’s alchemy and been able to live it as very few works of art do. By the same token, the marvelous TV show Friday Night Lights accomplishes the same effect with modern American high schools as few books or shows do; Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, despite its flaws, accomplished for boarding schools; and though many other novels try, they more often than not fail. To be sure, parts of Friday Night Lights, book and show, are no doubt exaggerated, just like Prep. One cannot fully recreated the Middle Ages in a novel, even one so wonderful as The Name of the Rose. Yet they have the verisimilitude in form and content that The Enchantress of Florence lacks. Eco knows the Middle Ages, Neal Stephenson knows hacker culture, and J.R.R. Tolkien knew Middle-earth better than I know Seattle. Alas: I’m not sure Rushdie knows the Moghul empire, the concerns of its people, and the age in which they lived. If he does, he didn’t prove it, and even if he did prove it, I’m sure that could’ve saved The Enchantress of Florence.



Rushdie visited Seattle recently, where he talked a little bit about The Enchantress of Florence and a lot about politics, both of the famous fatwah against him and the U.S. This was in response to questions, but given how little he spoke about his work and how little I thought of the book, I don’t have anything to write about that hasn’t been written about in more depth elsewhere. Search Google for his name, and you can’t help finding more concerning politics than books.

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