The Conversation

Responses and reverberations

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Are Sports Ruining High School?

In October’s cover story, Amanda Ripley suggested that all the money, time, and energy invested in high-school sports would be better spent on boosting academic performance.

Ripley’s idea—uncouple sports from educational institutions—is well worth consideration. But one puzzle also worth consideration involves the robust finding that—even when controlling for other outcomes, like earning a college degree—former high-school athletes tend to earn higher salaries at mid-career points than people who didn’t play a varsity sport.

There’s no reason to assume that this correlation hinges on sports’ being administered by schools. But it’s important to note that the same costs that Ripley specified for equipment and travel would need to be borne by students and families if interscholastic competitions were uncoupled from schools. Barriers would then emerge for students whose families are not able to bear those costs.

Kevin Kniffin
Ithaca, N.Y.

It’s time for parents who want their kids to play sports to foot the bill. Taxes are meant to support education—not sports. If parents want their kids to play, they pay.

Sue Brooks
Houston, Texas

It seems that the primary culprit Ms. Ripley identified as “ruining high school” isn’t high-school sports; it’s high-school football. While I love professional football, it is increasingly clear that 21st-century high-school football is expensive, dangerous for the participants, and potentially fatally distracting from any school’s goals of academic excellence.

But that is simply not true of softball, wrestling, cross-country, swimming, gymnastics, or any other sport where spectators are mainly parents, and kids are competing mainly for the thrill of competition, the enjoyment of the sport, and the desire for self-improvement.

Tennis keeps my daughter in shape and teaches her about teamwork and mental toughness on the court, while encouraging good time-management skills off the court so homework gets done and grades stay up.

Surely Ms. Ripley can draw a distinction between the monster that high-school football has become in many schools and the appropriate role that many “lesser” sports play in a well-rounded education. Strong bodies, strong minds!

Peter W. Groeneveld
Narberth, Pa.

Interscholastic athletics is a positive addition to the life of a school and the community. The value of an education is to expose students to a wide variety of offerings, be it academic offerings, clubs, cultural activities, or, yes, even athletics. I have seen firsthand, as a parent and an athletic administrator, what an athletic program whose mission aligns with that of the school district can do for participants. There are many students who stay in school or build their confidence by being involved in athletics, theater, music, or any other club. Eliminating athletics will not guarantee academic success and will certainly not guarantee improved test scores. Our education system also values students who have creative talents in other areas of school, be it art, music, or writing. Should we take those away too?

Steve Young
Former president, New York State Athletic Administrators Association
Riverdale, N.Y.

Ripley notes that in the Texas district that serves as her case study, eliminating football could free up enough funds to hire a full-time music teacher. The logic is clear: music is more important than athletics. Even if you accept, as Ripley does, the tired premise that American schools are lagging behind South Korea and Singapore in human-capital production, surely neither music nor athletics can claim to be economically relevant. The only difference, it seems, is that music has been anointed as desirable by middle- and upper-class culture, while the plebian interest in sports is purportedly ruining our children.

Ethan Ris
Stanford, Calif.

To Amanda Ripley’s excellent but sad essay let me add another culprit: local media. In my city and, I suspect, many others, athletics and especially football and basketball athletes are continually extolled. On local television, the minutes devoted to high-school sports almost amount to the time spent on local news. Athletes and their coaches are treated like gods.

In contrast, nary an inch of print space nor a minute of airtime is given over to the academic scholar or to the outstanding member of the drama club, foreign-language club, glee club, or student council.

While sports are ruinous for schools, they are ruinous as well for the young participants whose self-importance, enhanced by the schools and the media, will not serve them well when school days are over.

Gerald Bazer
Toledo, Ohio

The Homework Wars

In October, Karl Taro Greenfeld worried that heavy workloads are ruining young students’ sleeping patterns, and doing little to prepare them for the real world (“My Daughter’s Homework Is Killing Me”). Many readers wrote in, including more than 50 juniors from Mrs. Sims’s English classes at the Cleveland School of Medicine and Science (nearly all of whom agreed with Greenfeld).

The debate about homework should not be “how much?” but “what kind?” and “what for?” Using homework merely to cover material there was no time for in class is less helpful, for example, than “distributed practice”: reinforcing and reviewing essential skills. Independent reading is also important. There are many more rare and unique words in even relatively simple texts than in the conversation of college graduates. Reading widely and with stamina is an important way to build verbal proficiency and background knowledge, keys to mature reading comprehension.

Robert Pondiscio
Excerpt from an online Atlantic debate

Mr. Greenfeld asks readers whether they can imagine a profession in which employees spend all day at the office, work four or so hours afterward on homework, and still have work to do over the weekend. I suspect that if he posed the same question to his daughter’s teachers, they’d have no trouble coming up with an answer.

Greg Marano
Canandaigua, N.Y.

The day after receiving my copy of The Atlantic, my 11-year-old son flopped it in front of me with the cover’s homework headline circled. So I dutifully read the article, and was dismayed to see the references to the author’s use of marijuana as an eighth-grader and continuing on into adulthood as a normal activity. My son has now absorbed that attitude, even though schools, church, and my wife and I have always sought to steer him away from it. Thanks a lot!

Brian Roche
Redlands, Calif.

The word sic is used to indicate an incorrect word in a quote. Why, then, does Karl Greenfeld use it after a perfectly correct its? I can only assume someone thinks its should be it’s here: “We also have to read 79 pages of Angela’s Ashes and find ‘three important and powerful quotes for the section with 1–2 sentence analyses of its [sic] significance.’ ” The possessive its is fine just the way it is. I’ll bet both Greenfeld and his daughter know that. How about your proofreader?

Tom Bourne
Woodstock, Vermont

The copy desk replies:

The [sic] notation is included in this quotation to indicate that the author (along with the copy editors and, yes, our proofreaders) recognizes that the appropriate word here is their, to refer back to the plural quotes. We concede that its inclusion might not have been necessary, and perhaps our [sic] could be read as condescending toward the teacher—but please rest assured that we do know the difference between its and it’s.

The New Terrorist Training Ground

In October, Yochi Dreazen warned that Africa, and Mali in particular, poses a significant threat of terrorism.

Yochi Dreazen claims that “the new face of terror is likely to be African.” This is not true.

Dreazen conflates Islamist militants with international terrorists. Despite being one of the best-funded of the terror franchises, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has shown little ability or inclination to attack Western targets outside the region. Instead, it has piggybacked on long-standing nationalist grievances and used secular allies to advance questionable goals. Attacks on the Il Amenas gas plant and a French-owned uranium mine are mistakenly attributed to international terrorism rather than to a war strategy that seeks to deny the state access to revenue.

Dreazen also fundamentally misunderstands the history of the region. AQIM is a byproduct of Algeria’s 1992 elections, which the military dissolved for fear that a coalition of Islamic parties would upset the balance of power. No one can agree on AQIM’s numbers, and some think that the organization is actually an Algerian intelligence operation to draw U.S. funding and support into the region. Algeria may be seen as an ally in the Sahel, but its disregard for Western sanctions kept Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya on life support. Regardless, AQIM’s Algerian roots prevent it from taking hold in the Malian sands.

The recent attacks in Nairobi seem to support Dreazen’s worst fears; however, many see this tragedy as the last gasp of a dying beast. Al-Shabaab has lost significant territory and support in Somalia against African Union peacekeepers, who prove that Africans are able to police their own backyard. The U.S. would do best to cultivate regional alliances and take a backseat in the conflict.

Sterling Carter
Flora, Ind.

Yochi Dreazen replies:

Sterling Carter is right to say that many of Africa’s Islamist groups haven’t yet shown an ability to hit Western targets outside the continent, a point that I make in my article.

He’s wrong to argue that they don’t want to. 

I’m confused by Carter’s assertion that AQIM and its allies act out of an attempt to deny states like Algeria access to needed revenue, rather than because of their extremist religious and political views. Fighters trained by AQIM took part in the September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, a strike that had nothing to do with money and everything to do with ideology. Boko Haram destroyed a large United Nations facility in Nigeria, a strike that was similarly motivated by a misguided view of Islam. During al-Shabaab’s siege of the Westgate Mall in Kenya, its fighters separated out and killed non-Muslims while leaving Muslims largely unharmed. If they were driven by financial considerations, not religious ones, why would they have even bothered?

Carter is strikingly optimistic about the capabilities of African peacekeepers now fighting in Somalia and northern Mali. With the exception of Chadian troops, most of the African soldiers I saw in my weeks in Mali were under-equipped, poorly trained, and visibly uninterested in confronting the Islamist fighters they were nominally there to fight. Absent the French intervention, there’s no doubt that the African troops would have been defeated in any push to reclaim the north. America’s Africa strategy for more than a decade has been to do exactly what Carter proposes: cultivate relationships with friendly governments, give them hundreds of millions of dollars in military and financial aid, and then largely sit out the conflicts that erupt in Mali, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, and a host of other countries. The war weariness of the Obama administration means that this approach is unlikely to change anytime soon. But it should.


The Big Question

Readers respond to the October issue

Q: What was the greatest speech, historical or fictional, ever given?

Senator Margaret Chase Smith’s denunciation of Joseph McCarthy: “It is high time for the United States Senate and its members to do some soul-searching … on the manner in which we are performing our duty to the people of America.”

Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator: “The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.”

On October 14, 1912, President Theodore Roosevelt was shot in the chest. The bullet pierced a copy of the speech he went on to deliver.

Kevin Costner, Bull Durham: “I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.”

William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, 1950: “The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

JFK, April 1961: “The very word secrecy is repugnant in a free and open society.”

Al Pacino, Any Given Sunday: “Life’s this game of inches.”

FDR, December 8, 1941: “A date which will live in infamy.”

The Gettysburg Address

Jack Nicholson, A Few Good Men: “You can’t handle the truth!”

Mel Gibson, Braveheart: “They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”

Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address, 1961: “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence … by the military-industrial complex.”

Martin Luther King Jr., August 1963: “I have a dream.”

Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech, April 1964: “It’s one or the other in 1964.”

Congresswoman Barbara Jordan’s 1976 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention: “We are attempting to fulfill our national purpose: to create and sustain a society in which all of us are equal.”

Brad Pitt, Fight Club: “You are not your job. You’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your fuckin’ khakis.”

Kurt Russell, Miracle: “Great moments are born from great opportunity.”

Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’s filibuster, June 2013

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This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/12/the-conversation/354686/