The Athletic Problem in Education

ALTHOUGH the tendency of athletic sports to find a definite place in our educational institutions has doubtless, on the whole, proved beneficial to the interests of society, it promises to effect certain grave changes in our system of education. On the one hand, the needs of mental training for the duties of society are constantly increasing: each decade makes it more difficult to accomplish the sufficient education of youth. On the other, the development of the athletic motive trenches more and more upon the time and the interests of the student. Already educators of the youth in the mother country and her intellectual dependencies are struggling to bring about some satisfactory equation between these two classes of needs. Most of them clearly eye the advantage which is derived from physical sports. They see also only too clearly how in many instances these sports tend to turn the youth away from the interests of the higher culture. In the following pages I propose to consider the origin of the athletic impulses embodied in our sports, and their place in our system of education.

The disposition of mind and body which leads our youth so strongly towards the diversions of athletic sport rests upon several enduring inherent motives. In all the lower animals which are akin to man, indeed in nearly all the mammalia, we find the young endowed with a sportive humor. As soon as they come into possession of their bodies, they begin to exercise them with vigorous antics, which, though they seem purposeless, are, physiologically considered, thoroughly purposeful. It is characteristic of all these creatures that the development of the brain keeps ahead of the muscular growth until the adult state is attained. The rapid growth of the body demands that it have a large amount of education in movement, a training which would not be gained by the ordinary functions of life. Sport comes in to exercise the frame, and so to perfect the process of growth. The friskings of two lambs in mimic combat or the endless capers of a young monkey are as necessary for their growth as the food which is built into the body. In man the period of growth is remarkably long. It lasts for a greater time than in any of his lower kindred, except perhaps the slow-growing elephants, and the changes which supervene between the time of birth and the perfect state of the body are greater in man than in any creatures mammalian.

Besides the need of training of the body which characterizes man, he requires a culture of the mind in a measure not demanded in the case of any other animal. It is therefore fit that with human beings the period of sport culture, the time during which the two sides of life, the material and the mental, are receiving their education, should be greater than in any other creature. Sport, that is activity relating only to growth of mind and body, of necessity occupies a very large place in the history of a human being. There are other reasons why our ordinary sports have a place in the history of man greater than that which they possess in the period of development of lower creatures. The intelligence of man, and the keen sympathetic understanding of his fellows which arises from that intelligence, awaken the desire to conquer for conquering’s sake. Some one has defined man as separated from other creatures by the fact that in him alone do we find progressive desires which are stimulated by their very satisfaction. From this peculiar form of the contending motives comes the impulse to win in contentions of every sort. Whoever has gained a sense of the contentions on which all human advance depends must value the development of this motive. Civilization is in fact made up of unnecessary accomplishments, of deeds which have been done beyond the limits of the moment’s need.

Looking upon athletic sports in this way, considering them as a branch of natural education, the true trainer of youth will hesitate before he rashly ventures to interfere with the motives which lead to such diversions. He will see that he must reckon with this nature in his effort to impose the newer and as yet less natural arts of the higher intellectual culture. He will see that the form and quality of man took their ancestral shape in just such pleasurable activities as are manifest in our sports, and not in the grim work of the money-getting world for which he is endeavoring to fit the being. He will, moreover, see that the moral status of the youth which it is his first duty to affirm has a certain gain from these modes of action. The habits of command, of coöperation, and of laboring under defeat, qualities of the utmost value in maturer life, on which indeed the very successes of the race may depend, are cultivated in sportive contention, as they cannot be in any more artificial training. The teacher may prescribe the conditions of success in all modes of battle with the amplest illustrations from history without giving the youth a tenth part of the masterful quality which wins victories that he might obtain in a game of foot-ball. Therefore I say that the first duty of the educator is to look carefully to his processes when he begins to interfere with this ancient mode of culture.

The point that physical culture attained through the sportive motive is essential to the moral and bodily welfare of the race being accepted, the educator has to consider what are the evils which are likely to arise from the excessive development of these forms of exercise, — evils of a moral and physical sort. Considering first the physical effects of sports, we find a number of matters which demand the attention of the investigator. First among these effects upon the body, we may reckon the danger to life and limb incurred in a number of such diversions. It is a curious fact that nearly all our sports are based upon the effort to get possession of a ball: cricket, base-ball, foot-ball, lacrosse, tennis, all the common sports of youth except rowing, rest upon this contrivance. From the earliest dates of sport down to the present time, these little spheres have been the basis of diversions. Foot-ball, perhaps the oldest of these amusements among our people, has, as is well known, certain grave dangers. In the beginning of sports which grew up among the rustic population of England, the people of adjacent parishes played the game, all the able-bodied peasants taking a part in it. The ball was commonly kicked from the church of one parish to that of the other, and the contest lasted often for many hours. When the sport came into the possession of school-boys, it was gradually organized, until at the present time it is subject to a very elaborate body of rules, and the number of contestants is limited to eleven on each side. The sport necessarily involves a system of training by which rude strength is combined with address in a very beautiful manner. The manifest aim of modern rules concerning this game is to limit the importance of mere brute force in contest, and it increases the value of the skill in individual action and perfection of combination among players. Although a good deal of risk is met in this sport, the regulation which it has of late undergone has diminished the element of danger, at the same time increasing the educational value of the diversion. To the ordinary well-conditioned young man the game has some eminent advantages. It teaches him to keep a cool head in moments of great activity. In it he learns to take considerable risks of bodily pain without hesitation, and to combine his action with that of his mates. It cultivates swift judgment, endurance, and self-confidence, without which even the naturally brave can never learn to meet danger. In no other form of activity can we, during times of peace, hope to give as valuable training to youth as is afforded by this sport. It appears to me well to bear with the dangers incurred in this violent form of exercise in order to retain in our system of discipline the peculiar training which is afforded by it alone.

Next to foot-ball, the sport of lacrosse, the only social custom which we have derived from the aborigines of this country, commends itself to the educator. As with foot-ball, lacrosse was originally a game played between large numbers of contestants. It has come now to the same limitation as regards numbers that we find with foot-ball. Like that sport, though in a less degree, it demands a willingness to take bodily risks and an ability for creating swiftly formed cooperation between the persons engaged in the amusement. It has an advantage over foot-ball in that it does not necessarily involve the rude personal bodily contact between the contestants. If they touch each other in the strife, it is with the instrument by which the ball is thrown towards the goal.

Cricket and base-ball are to a great degree exempt from physical danger; at most the hands of the player suffer in the game. Even as much as the preceding sports, these minor forms of the ball games serve to train the youth in a swift and ready coöperation with their mates. Lawn tennis, at the moment the most popular of the ball sports, has the objection that the player is generally self-contained in his work, and does not obtain the training in coöperation which is the peculiarly precious element in the other related sports.

The only other coöperative diversion which is common enough among our students to give it any educational value is that of rowing. Aquatic contests with the oar have, as in the sports before mentioned, the general advantage that they require coöperation between those engaged in the labor, and this in a high measure. To attain success, the boating crew must devote the leisure of a year or more to the task of working together. A man thus learns to bring his activities into adjustment with those of his mates. The difficulty with this art, considered from the point of view of mental training, is that the individual is called upon to convert his body into a machine, which moves in rhythmical unity with the bodies of others. While the man engaged in foot-ball or other similar sports has to keep his mind in the highest degree awake, ready for instant and varied action, the boating man acts in a more mechanical way. His duty is to expend all his energies in a perfectly even manner during the twenty minutes in which he is engaged in his strife, and the less he thinks while he is about his work the better his chance of success. This imperfection in the nature of the sport is partly compensated for by the fact that the work of a year in training is devoted to a moment of accomplishment in the actual race. It is something for the youth to learn the value of long-continued sacrifice directed to a single end.

The exercises of the gymnasium are what may be termed house exercises, generally involving no coöperation between the individual and his mates. Those sports which are self-contained, to run faster, jump higher, or put the shot further than any one else, may teach the individual the valuable art of putting forth all his energies to accomplish a given result, and in so far they are good ; but lacking the coöperative element, they have a less moral value than the associated field sports. Only one of the house sports has an element of cooperation, — that known as the tug-ofwar : and here the coöperative element is relatively small. Each individual is taught to sustain the utmost stress for a period of short duration, without much regard to the work of his fellows. The tug of-war resembles, in certain features, the boat-race, but it appears to be of less moral value than any other coöperative sport. Pugilism and wrestling, which once held so large a place in popular sports, still have a small share in our house exercises. On the whole, however, they appear to be dying out. Their only good side is in the training which they give the youth in the capacity to stand punishment. They are very objectionable in that the close personal contact in the struggle necessarily leads to brutality. If, however, the youth can engage in such sports, and at the same time keep the mastery of his rage, they afford a certain kind of moral training which is not to be despised.

In considering the disadvantages attendant on these several forms of diversion, we observe that the risk of physical accident is relatively small. Thus in the games at Harvard College during the last five years, although perhaps a thousand students have taken an active share in the contests, there has been no case in which death has been brought about, and it is doubtful if the maiming of any person has been so serious as to endanger his work in life. Where, as at the above-named school, the sports are supervised by a competent master of exercises, the risk of bodily ills is so very small that nothing but an unreasoning worship of life would lead to any criticism upon them on account of casualties which might occur.

It is possible, according to some medical testimony, that the excessive cultivation of the body in youth may lead to a speedier decay in middle life. The testimony on this point is conflicting, but it seems probable that such is not the case. The strain of the most vigorous contest upon the muscular and nervous system is not greater than those which are met by soldiers and others engaged in the serious activities of life. The statistics concerning the careers of those who have been engaged in university races, both in this country and Europe, do not indicate that these contests permanently impair the health of those engaged in them. It thus appears that we may dismiss the apprehension that athletic exercises are harmful to the body. We may well deem the immediate evidence of strong health and endurance which characterizes those who cultivate these arts as a substantial gain, and one not offset by any future disadvantages.

When we consider the effect of athletic sports upon the mental and moral development of youth, the question becomes of a more embarrassing character, In presenting the matter, I shall first turn the reader’s attention to one effect of athletic exercises, which has not been recognized in any writings I have seen upon the subject. This is the influence of athleticism in retarding the development of the mind. There is a great diversity in the peoples of northern Europe as to the age at which the mind acquires its normal powers. One of the commonest sources of perplexity in the management of young men arises from the fact that the mental development is not always coördinated with physical growth. This seems to be conspicuously the case in the youth of the United States. In watching for a quarter of a century the tide of youth which sets through Harvard College, I have paid a good deal of attention to those cases in which there has been a manifest retardation in the mental development. Many observers have noted that the youth of frail bodies frequently attain to something like intellectual maturity at an early age. In European countries it appears not unusual that boys of sixteen exhibit very nearly their full powers, or at least show to the observer what their ultimate capacities are to be. My personal contact with college students has been of an intimate nature. I have known rather more than three thousand such students under twenty years of age. Among none of these have I observed such instances of precocity as appear to be not uncommon in other countries. I am therefore inclined to think it likely that the American youth is, in the language of the naturalist, more altrocious than those of other lands; that is, his mental growth is more than usually retarded. This appears to coincide with the experience of American life-insurance companies in this country, — an experience which shows that the longevity of the American man is rather greater than that of the race on the other side of the water. From the same contact with youths from all sections of the country, in Harvard College, I have come to the conclusion that a high measure of physical activity tends to postpone the period of mental maturity. I think the youths who have been much given to field sports, or who, in other words, have attained a vigorous growth, are apt to be from one to two years behind their mates in their intellectual development.

Although it is a serious inconvenience to our educational system to have such diversities between the physical and mental development, and in many regards disadvantageous to the youth of vigorous body to be bound to their fellows in a race for intellectual gains, their minds are, in the end, none the less good for being slow to come to a full measure of capacity. It seems likely that they are surer of long life from the slower growth at the beginning of their careers.

Turning now to the mental and moral evils of contestive sports, we find a more puzzling field of inquiry. In all forms of games, the principal interest in the performance is derived from the motive of the contestants to overcome their antagonists. As long as this effort is limited to the exercise of skill, to the training in coöperation and individual sacrifice, the result is in a high degree enlarging to the youth. Whatever of the mean impulse towards victory there may be is overwhelmed by the larger and more humanistic motive. The difficulty is that the winning is almost certain to become dearer to the contestants than the action which leads to it.

The result is a temptation to resort to subterfuge in order to secure success. No one can attentively watch any of our college sports without being occasionally struck with the evidence of this debasing spirit. More commonly it is found among the keenly interested spectators than in those actually engaged in the games ; but it is sometimes evident even there. Thus, in our base-ball games, one occasionally sees a youth endeavor to claim a point to which he knows he has no right. He trusts to the chances of the umpire not being able to see the actual state of the ease. As far as it goes, this evil habit is in the last degree degrading, and calculated to bear very ill fruit in the subsequent life of the man. Nothing can be worse in the way of a bar to an honorable career than the habit of winning unjustly. Let a man accept the principle that the chance failure of an arbiter to see through his tricks gives him a right to the gains they may afford him, and thenceforth the limits of honorable action will never be clear to him.

It is the custom of those who coach teams in contests to endeavor by their talk to worry their opponents. This evil has grown up in intercollegiate contests within a few years. It is now so serious as to threaten the wholesomeness of sport. The condition of the game of base-ball favors the use of this pernicious custom. It is necessary, in that sport, for the coach to direct the movements of certain men. It is undoubtedly very easy for him to make his shouting efficient in disturbing the work of his antagonists.

Another evil of the game arises from the fact that all the decisions of critical points depend upon hired umpires. My observation of this class of men has shown me that, as a whole, they are singularly just in their judgments. Their task is one of much difficulty, and is exposed to peculiar temptations. It is greatly to their credit that they are rarely suspected of deliberate injustice. Nevertheless, it seems to me unfit that the sports of students should be in any way involved with the actions of paid men belonging to a distinctly different class. In such a class there is of course a liability of trickery. Every now and then it is suspected that the gamesters who have money staked on the result of these contests pay the umpire for his influence in the result of the game. In almost all closely contested matches, it is easy for him to give the result to the side he may deliberately prefer.

The danger to the moral tone of these sports which arises from the services of hired umpires is connected with the larger evil of betting upon such games. It is a well-known fact that a great deal of money is staked, both by students and the outside public, on the results of intercollegiate contests. Sporting-men, in general, have a fancy for wagers on such events, for the reason that while there is some room for fraud, they feel on the whole more protected from it than in any other public sports. As between the students of the colleges, a great deal of money is commonly staked on the issue. Although the habit of making incidental wagers on the result of contests is perhaps not a very serious evil in itself, it breeds a habit of mind which readily leads to the youth’s destruction. As in all immature people, even among the adult of uncultivated races, the gambling impulse is everywhere strong among students. All things considered, it is probably the most serious evil with which our higher schools have to deal. It appears to be worse in our secondary schools than in the universities. The worst evil of gambling is that it brings about a habit of mind which is apt to follow the youth through life. Other vices are often corrected by experience. This habit is characterized by singular permanence, and totally unfits the youth for the serious, unexciting, and laborious work of the world. In so far as matched games serve to develop the gamester humor in our youth, they are a curse to our institutions of learning. There is no question that they do afford the opportunity for much speculation of this description ; but it is an open question whether, in case this opportunity of gambling were wanting, the motive would not find an outlet in other lines. Nevertheless, I am inclined to the opinion that the gambling which is induced by intercollegiate sports is a very serious qualification of their utility. There is some consolation in the fact that the youth is apt to learn the lesson of discretion in the use of the speculative motive with less damage to his pocket or character by betting on the games of his mates than in more sordid ways.

In some institutions of learning it appears to have been noticed that athletic contests have served to diminish the interest of the student body in personal exercises. It is supposed that the interest of the individual student in his own physical culture is in some way diminished by the success of his comrades, who by virtue of their natural parts or long-continued training have attained to perfection in the art. Thus, in the report made by a committee of the board of overseers of Harvard College, the ground was taken that coinpetitive athletics had served to lower the physical condition of the students, few taking part in such sports, for the reason that they could not attain distinguished excellence in their work. My own experience as a student and teacher in Harvard College, which extends altogether over a period of thirty years, does not support this judgment. I note in the first place that a poor physical condition is at present a matter of reproach to an individual, and he feels that he has to justify his bad state to his comrades by some kind of plea in extenuation. I notice furthermore that, in teaching geology in the field, set walks which twenty years ago surpassed the pedestrian powers of quite one half my students are now entirely within their abilities. That the reader may not be led to explain this difference by the fact of growing infirmity on my own part, I may say that not only the distances, but the times involved in the journey, are the same now as of old. There can be no question in my mind that the physical condition of the average student at Harvard College is vastly better than it was a score of years ago.

Along with this improvement in physical condition of youths has gone a decided gain in certain moral qualities. Thus between 1864 and 1870, it was not uncommon to find students in Harvard College seriously the worse for habits of drinking. I can recollect in those years a dozen cases in which I felt impelled to expostulate with young men on this subject. At least as many persons were knowm to me to be what we may properly call drunkards ; but from about 1870, when the athletic motive began to develop, and particularly since the foundation of the new gymnasium, and the consequent wide development of field and house athletics, this vice has been rapidly diminishing. At present I do not know in my acquaintance with the students, which extends perhaps to half the members of the university, a single case in which the young man can be called a drunkard. I believe this gain to be due in large measure to the sense of pride in a physical state which affects by far the larger part of the students. Their experience in training, which is undergone in one way or another by a very large part of the young men, gives them by experiment a clear understanding as to the influence of hygienic conditions. In a similar way the use of tobacco has diminished. Between 1865 and 1880, it was not uncommon to find men so sodden with tobacco that they were unpleasant subjects to have in a small lecture-room. In this decade, I have found but two or three persons affected to this extent by tobacco. Even the use of tea and coffee, on the whole undesirable with youth, but extremely common in former years, has remarkably diminished. I am informed that only about one half the students who take their meals at Memorial Hall indulge in these beverages. In fact, the ways of the trained men in a college, like the customs of an army in a state where the military arm has great importance, are effective upon the body of the folk. Reasonable living is necessary to athletic success, and the habits of those men become in a way a pattern for the school life.

Inquiries which have just been made by a committee of the college faculty, to whom was referred the report of the board of overseers concerning intercollegiate sports, have shown that about one half of the students in Harvard College submit themselves to the valuable physical and moral discipline involved in training. Though only a part of this number have attained to success as athletes, they all share the advantages which the preparation gives. The gain in physical and moral stamina which comes from such modes of life is incalculably great. All the teachers of Harvard College who have kept themselves in close relations with the students are sensible of this profit.

The question remains whether the competitive element in the contests is necessary for the perpetuation of what we may call the athletic motive. This is a difficult question to decide ; but there are certain considerations which may not be without value. First, we note the fact that in all sports whatsoever the competitive element enters. A man may get a certain measure of diversion in solitary exercise; but we all know by experience how little inclined youth is to physical activities, except under either the stimulus of contention or the stimulus of example. It is scarcely to be supposed that the disciplinary training which is so desirable an element in our sports will be endured for any other end than the culture of the body. Mere exercise for the preservation of health does not commend itself to the untrained young man. This activity of the athletic motive in our schools has been secured by means of the competition between the students of the several colleges. We cannot expect to perpetuate the motive without the existence of the stimulus under which it has grown up. Because we must look to intercollegiate contests for the stimulus which is to maintain the athletic activity of the students, it does not, however, follow that the amount of this competition need be very great. At present it appears to be excessive. Thus in the case of Harvard College, though the measure of the contention has been restrained by the action of the faculty, the athletic organizations enter into competition with about half a dozen other institutions, with the result that an unreasonable amount of time is given to such contests. It seems probable that all the necessary stimulus could be secured by having the contests limited to two or three schools. It is indeed possible that if there were no other competitions save those between Harvard and Yale, their youths would be provided with a sufficient incentive for the development of their athletic activities. It should be noted, however, that experience appears to show that where the competition is limited to a single organization, the spirit of contention becomes much intensified, and there is danger of having the antagonism develop in a dangerous degree, in a measure hurtful to the spirit of good nature which should prevail in such contests.

One of the most serious evils connected with athletic sports arises from the wild celebrations with which victory in important contests is received. All our larger colleges suffer from this evil. The fact is that youths are somewhat liable to outbreaks of a mob-like spirit, which is only partly subjugated even in completely trained men, and is very apt to overwhelm reason in persons who are not yet matured by culture. The only way in which an approach to adequate control has been had with these outbreaks is by the threat on the part of the college authorities to prohibit all contests with other colleges if the rejoicings are not moderated. This prohibitive element introduces at once a bad spirit into the relations of the college authorities with the students.

It seems to me very desirable, in order to promote the educative value of these sports, that all forms of restraint should be brought about as far as possible by the action of the students themselves. At present, in Harvard College, the effort is to bring the moral and legal control of these diversions into the hands of a committee composed of members of the faculty, graduates, and representatives of their own body chosen by the students. There is reason to hope that this method may be successful, and that to the other profits of athletic culture we may add the training of moderation in action supplied by the rational sense of the student body. This is clearly the most hopeful way of ridding this branch of education of its evil.

We must bear in mind the fact that the revival of athletic sports in this country has been of decided advantage to our people. An inspection of the admirable records as to the physical condition of students, which are kept at Harvard University, show clearly that we have in the gymnastic habit a precious influence in our education. Whatever steps may be taken to guide this impulse in our youth, we must take pains not to stop the spring whence it flows.

It would be interesting to trace the relation of the modern athletic motive as it is developing in the English people to the general tides of thought which have affected that folk. It might be shown that the sportive humor which is now affecting that people appears to be a part of that curious reaction against the puritanic motive which so profoundly influenced this people for some centuries. For hundreds of years our race was singularly dominated by the schools of religious thought which contemned the body and all its spontaneous motives. We are now in the midst of a reaction against that long-continued depression. There is a certain risk that we may go too far, for all such resurgences of motive have their dangers. There can be no doubt, however, that as a whole the change has been helpful to the state of man. As yet we have not begun to meet the evils which, from their devotion to sport, beset the upper classes of Rome. The man of to-day is a much gentler creature than the Roman. He is at foundation profoundly sympathetic, deeply affected by the Christian motive, and there is very little risk that our athleticism will take on the Roman shape.

It appears to me that the best method of meeting the evils which have arisen and are likely to arise from sports is to be found in a thorough-going understanding on the part of our young men concerning their place in life. To attain this end, our colleges should give as systematic instruction in the matter of sports as circumstances will permit. I cannot see but that it would be well to follow the plan already introduced into some of the colleges, of making gymnastic exercise a required element in the training. To the physical part of the exercise of such a course there might well be added a careful study of the anatomy and physiology connected with the problems of the muscular and hygienic development. The best education is that which mixes the rational with the impulsive or emotional motives. If the students could be brought to consider the matter of their diversions with a certain rationality of view, the effect would be to temper that element of fury which is now the only evil of these diversions.

The last point in the athletic problem which we shall consider is the relation of athletic sports to repose. Many critics of athletics have objected to the large amount of nervous expenditure involved in such diversions. In the first place they deplore the loss of this energy from more intellectual labor, and in the next place they object to the encroachment upon the period of rest. The experience of our colleges shows pretty clearly that the evils likely to arise from the excessive devotion of time to diversions are not of a serious nature. Those inclined to be good students will do their intellectual work as well as their play, neither harming the other. The unintellectual person probably secures as much training in sport as he does in any other part of his employment. If there be embarrassments arising from excessive devotion to athletics, it is easy for the college authorities to remedy the matter by enforcing the requirements of study.

It has been suggested that athletic sports trench on the time which students should give to rest and quiet thought. To this we may answer that the need of rest other than that of sleep in the case of youth is very doubtful. Judging from the behavior of the youth of savages and of the lower animals, we may fairly say that sport is the true rest of youth-time. It is true that the middle-aged man, the natural critic of youth, finds an intellectual as well as physical profit in contemplative repose, and therefore is inclined to favor the same habit in youth. Those of athletic organization are rarely meditative ; it is rare, indeed, that youth is inclined to such habits, and it may be doubted whether they are likely to be good for him. We can afford to risk the loss of the contemplative habit, because there are few persons so organized as to make good use of this intellectual employment, and for the better reason that the world needs rather the swift reaction of man against his surroundings which the athletic habits favor. This quality the world will have at any cost. It can afford to pay empires for it, for on this capacity rests nearly all the successes which constitute human advance.

N. S. Shaler.