Popular Science Monthly/Volume 16/March 1880/Athletics in Schools

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THE Honorable Edward Littleton, an authority in English higher education, has written a notable article in the "Nineteenth Century" on "Athletics in Public Schools." He canvasses the system with some thoroughness, and arrives at independent conclusions regarding it, which will be of special interest on this side of the Atlantic, now that such vigorous efforts are making to adopt the same policy in our higher schools. We accordingly give a summary of the chief points of his essay.

He begins by remarking that intelligent Frenchmen are in the habit of highly commending the English public schools. But, when asked the reason, they always refer to the admirable "culte of athletics" which English students enjoy. This surprises the Englishmen—first, because the French have no such thing in their schools, and the Frenchman is therefore speaking about that of which he knows nothing; and, second, because the English themselves are beginning to have profound misgivings in regard to the influence of this marked feature of their educational system.

Mr. Littleton first-states the undoubted advantages to be derived from athletics. They are to be encouraged on the grounds of health, as there is unquestionably an hygienic value in games for boys. Again, pastimes afford a relief from the repulsive restraints and monotonous labors of the schoolroom, and are thus promotive of enjoyment. There is, moreover, a benefit in the discipline they afford. The boy who is a member of an athletic club or combination is "forced to put the welfare of the common cause before selfish interests, to obey implicitly the word of command, and act in concert with the heterogeneous elements of the company he belongs to." Those, besides, who secure the posts of command, "feel the gravity of responsible office, and the difficulty of making prompt decisions and securing a willing obedience."

But the difficulty at once arises how to restrain athletics, so as to get only their undoubted advantages. They have a tendency to excess which becomes subversive of the fundamental objects of the school; and for this excess Mr. Littleton shows that the outside public is very largely responsible. How rapidly this influence has been developed and brought to bear upon the schools during the present generation is well illustrated by the following passage: "Any one who played in the Oxford and Cambridge or Eton and Harrow cricket-matches thirty years ago can testify that there were scarcely enough spectators to form a continuous line round Lord's cricket-ground. In the latter match it was not found necessary to use ropes till 1864, while now, such is the importance of the annual pageant, that it affects the duration of the London season. At about the same date a few keen sans gathered together to see the universities contend in rowing. Little was said about it, scarcely anything written. Nowadays the crowd assembled to see the practice of the crews equals the number of those who used to watch the actual race; moreover, the minutest facts connected with the play of each oarsman's muscles are anxiously picked up on the spot, form a paragraph in the daily papers, and are telegraphed to the antipodes. Deducting from all this the influence of fashion and the mere gregarious tendencies of society, it is quite clear that there has been a dead set of public feeling toward increasing the importance of all athletics. In short, the tide has borne all before it, and scarcely a warning voice has been heard hinting at the possibility of going too far; and, consequently, very many boys soon after they enter the schools (some of them before) are impressed with the notion that athletics are to be pursued as the one important thing—in conjunction with reading, perhaps, si non, quocunque modo—but pursued with every nerve they must be."

Of the elements of danger developed in the system under this powerful pressure, the writer remarks: "At first sight, any one would say that its chief danger in the present day lies in the superfluity of time devoted to various out-door pursuits at school. This is wrong. I do not deny, of course, that too much time may be, and not unfrequently is, absorbed daily by games; but that is not the chief danger: authorities could easily suppress an extra hour or two if they saw fit. But it is not generally realized that the effects of games last far beyond the close of play-hours. Leaving out of sight all physical considerations, over-fatigue, etc., which are nevertheless very important, let us look merely at the effects on the mind. Suppose the case of a lad in a school where athletics are much thought of, who is perhaps just emerging from obscurity because it is found that he can row or bowl well. He finds himself with an unlimited prospect of fame before him; if he makes a great struggle, some important step in his 'young ambition's ladder' will be reached; he will be elevated into a social atmosphere now tenanted by the high ones of the earth, who look down on him scornfully, but, in the event of his success, would soon be walking arm in arm with him. A fascination, unimaginable by the outside world, urges him onward, and, with a sense of his increasing importance, comes an increasing appreciation of the method by which he has risen; so that, even with his books before him, his mind is wandering among the scenes of his ephemeral triumphs and reverses while he ruminates on his last big innings or the prospects of distinction in a coming foot-ball match. Prizes, places in the school, are but little things, and are treated as of little worth. This statement of the case is not a whit exaggerated as far as the majority of athletes are concerned. It needs a very exceptional boy indeed, after having been engaged in an absorbing pursuit, to unshackle straightway his energies and thoughts simply at the call of duty, probably uninviting, irksome duty. But the athletes are not the only ones affected. Wherever athletics are very popular, around the coterie of successful gamesters is formed a large hoard of hangers-on, boys who admire muscle without possessing it, and who, formed by nature for a very different line, adopt the habits and opinions of the superior class, till, perhaps without participating, their interest, too, is absorbed by the prevailing rage, and the tone of the whole community is affected. Under these conditions, work, honest, spontaneous effort in other lines but amusement, is impossible."

The potent fascination of athletic games for boys is undeniable, and that they must greatly interfere with legitimate school-work it would be also folly to question. But, admitting that they hinder intellectual progress, it is common to affirm that there is a great compensation for this loss in the moral benefits of athletic training. It is said that there is a much more important thing in schools than book learning, and that is to improve the moral tone of students. But Mr. Littleton insists that it is far from being established that athletic games intensely pursued are any check upon vicious tendencies. He maintains that, where athleticism is so engrossing as to stunt the higher life of a school, it is not promotive of virtue, and that, "among schoolboys, the mere students are as a body more virtuous than the mere athletes." He does not affirm that among university students the athletes are more immoral than those who neglect physical recreations. The main question, however, here, is one of mental indolence and vacancy, and Mr. Littleton says: "An energetic athlete, without an idea of any other pursuit whatever, is better off and less likely to turn out vicious than a wholly idle university man or schoolboy; and the appreciation of this fact seems to have led people into investing athletics with a power of stemming vice; the truth being that they are in a limited degree obstructive of it—but only in a limited degree; and it is quite erroneous to suppose that in any educational institution a predominance of athleticism necessarily brings with it a high standard of morals." It is the absolute supremacy of recreation over study and the resulting lack of steady and wholesome mental occupation that lead to immoral consequences. A positive and serious evil of athleticism is, that it tends to become a power in the schools, rivaling the constituted authorities, and that is capable of becoming an enemy to discipline. The spirit of athleticism becomes organized, and the class devoted to it, representing the most powerful feeling in the institution, grows formidable, so that the teachers must ally themselves with it, or lose their control over the pupils. "As is sometimes remarked, no public functionary, no clergyman, no military commander, certainly no prime minister, assumes his powers intrusted with such absolute and unquestioning confidence as does a prominent public schoolboy. His opinions are not disputed, no opposition benches are ranged against him; but his lightest utterance carries law with it, and in questions of right and wrong his behavior goes far to shape the yet pliant dispositions of those around him. . . . These, then, are the dangerous aspects of athleticism. It is liable, if allowed full play, to damage seriously the intellectual interests of a school, without raising appreciably the moral tone, and also to become a hindrance to school government. It is quite obvious, then, that great care should be taken to control this development of school-life. It should be looked upon as ever tending to form an excrescence."

Mr. Littleton next proceeds to inquire how the evils of excessive athleticism may be diminished. A boy places but little reliance upon any representation of the teachers as to the unworthiness or secondary claims of athletics in comparison with proper educational objects. "He looks upon them as a class bound to preach such doctrines in the position they hold, and that it is only to be expected they should do so; but as for really thinking that they are right, when as it appears to him the whole of England is the other way, that he can not bring himself to do." Here is the difficulty; the motive power is the public interest. "That motive power is the consensus of fashionable opinion which acts externally on the feelings of the school and produces such results." But, as it is futile to try to correct public opinion, the only way is to prevent its taking effect by withdrawing the boys from its influence. It is in the power of the authorities to prevent those public contests which kindle such widespread public enthusiasm, when the interest and applause of multitudes are presented to the boys in their most imposing and dazzling form. That is, intercollegiate regattas and athletic contests of all sorts, which draw out great masses of excited people, had better be avoided in the interest of sound education.

But, while the prestige of athleticism might be diminished by guarding in this way against external influences, Mr. Littleton recognizes that the plan would have to be supplemented by agencies of a very different character. The school-work itself must be made more attractive. He sees that there is a very important change in the higher education of late years, which is not without promise of counteraction to the excessive devotion to sport. This change in the objects and methods of the school is thus described: "Certain conditions have given birth to a now widely-accepted theory of education, which in all probability will effect still more marked alterations than it has hitherto. The conditions are these: Owing to the increase of population on the one hand, and the advance of learning on the other, we are brought face to face, not only with an increasing number of subjects to be learned, but also with an increasing necessity of learning them. Many members of the class from which, thirty years ago, the ornamental men of leisure were recruited, now find that existence has assumed to them a more somber hue; paths formerly open to them are open no longer, and through knowledge alone an access to ease and affluence is to be obtained. Accordingly, the avenues to knowledge have been made smooth, and everything invites the unwilling to learn. The results of many years' unintermittent labor are presented in a compressed form in every description of hand-book and pocket primer, for it is only permitted to a comparatively few to remain ignorant and be content therewith. The field of knowledge has thus been greatly extended and opened out, and a great diversity of subjects have been grappled with, in one way or another; and, in spite of the fact that much of this great movement produces a paltry caricature of learning, new interests have been excited and minds stimulated which would have lain stagnant before. The managers of the various seats of education have roused themselves to supply the needs of the time and extend their resources; and they now present to the public a programme far broader and more inviting than that of a quarter of a century ago. In this way various special lines of education have been more widely adopted, and their adoption has influenced the purely general education, with this result: Men now perceive that boys' minds are almost infinitely various, and that knowledge of various sorts must be presented to them in various ways—anything to awaken interest and encourage voluntary intellectual effort. Now, it is from the development of this theory that I think we may expect results having an important bearing on the matter in hand. The introduction of subjects likely to attract boys' interest and the general idea of teaching them by exciting that interest tend to upset the notion that work is valuable per se quite independently of the subjects worked at. It must be admitted that this notion has been allowed every chance. Men have aimed at educing solid effort by a curriculum of study which could only be attractive to a select few. Let us hope that the idea has really had its day, for, besides being, as many now think, comparatively useless in itself, its effect on an overgrown athleticism is positively pernicious. So long as the graver occupations of a boy's life are slavish and detested, he will throw himself heart and soul into any kind of amusement, and set himself to find his only happiness therein, while all knowledge, all that is either useful for practical life, or merely refining in itself, he will vaguely think must be in a way dismal; his view of it will be colored by the memory of the toilsome and sterile hours he has spent with his books. And, even if he is forced to learn something, such knowledge as he gains will be unproductive; he has no affection for it, and does not care to impart it. It is remarkable how many men seem half ashamed even of such useful knowledge as they do possess. If boys' minds are to be elevated from athletics to anything higher, it will not be by such methods as these."

The change of method which Mr. Littleton regards as hopeful consists, first, in modernizing the curriculum of studies, and introducing into it subjects less repulsive than those now in vogue, and which are capable of exciting a readier and stronger intellectual interest. He would strengthen what is technically called the "modern sides," by incorporating various sciences and the living languages into the schemes of study. Subsidiary to this fundamental improvement several other resources are thus referred to: "But the movement has not stopped here. A further and most satisfactory result is noticeable in the recent establishment of workshops under proper control, where boys can gain some idea of the value of manual labor, and the respect due to careful handicraft. Museums too are encouraged, since they help in extending the front, so to speak, of the intellectual interest presented to the boys, and so increase the chance of alluring a greater number to pursue knowledge for its own sake. For those who know the natures of average boys know that the process of leading them to learn is in reality a process of allurement. Thousands of boys have a strong instinctive antipathy to intellectual effort; their point of view with regard to it has been modified; and if the attempt is made abruptly it will be ineffective; they suspect some sinister design, not knowing yet that what they are being led to is beautiful for its own sake, and capable of making them useful members of society. And, to further this innocent deception, such things as debating societies are valuable. They may induce an intellectual activity in quarters where there is often a marked tendency to stagnation, and stimulus may be given to thought, arrangement of ideas, and the hearing and imparting of facts, without aid of lexicons or fear of the ferule. But they are not often made to serve this purpose without considerable efforts being made toward sustaining them after they have once started. Transitory conditions may start them, and then generally a crisis supervenes demanding great care. Supposing, however, that this has been survived in safety, the society is liable to change its character. The debating element in its constitution is seen to lose prominence, and a club is formed of boys elected for their popularity, an aggregation of the influence of the school. There is of course a natural tendency to this, and the result is not unsatisfactory. Such a club embraces a class of boys whom a purely literary or debating society would probably exclude. They join it without the least intention of learning anything; but its usages should compel them, by means of debates, to take a livelier interest in rational subjects and enlarge their mental horizon. But there will very likely be room then for a purely literary society of a less compound nature, to coexist side by side with this club, and provide solely for the more studious portion of the community. For it can hardly be expected in any school that a club, with members elected for popularity, should coincide with another consisting of the scholars and the foremost devotees of learning.

"Many schools also publish periodicals, written and supported by the boys themselves, and these periodicals are of two characters: those devoted wholly to the record of athletics; and those which, besides being athletic journals, contain original compositions, both poetry and prose. They serve a useful purpose, as well as the societies, by fostering a mental activity among the class hardest to reach. Many a young athlete must have first been induced to exert his immature powers by writing (say) some reflections on certain aspects of football. The theme, doubtless, is somewhat humble, but he has to do his best, as his readers know the details of the question thoroughly, and will express their opinion as plainly as any weekly review. Perhaps he learns for the first time that having ideas is not the same thing as expressing them. But to promote the existence of journals which deal entirely with the school-games is dangerous. A very definite impression is made on the younger boys, if they are led to think there is only one subject on which their superiors think it worth while to express their ideas. An indefinite prestige is added to any subject, and still more to any name, by being immortalized in a few lines of letter-press, and it seems advisable that this glamour should not be thrown around one set of interests solely. The periodical should have a double character, and ought to act in the same way as the two kinds of debating society existing together; the serious portion of the journal would be the field for the literary effort of the studious and the scholar-like, as the literary society would be for their speeches; while the athletic records can teach athletes to write, just as the debates of the fashionable club would help them to speak."

But again, and in another aspect, Mr. Littleton sees that the question is complicated with outside influences. If public opinion strengthens excessive athleticism on a grand scale, by making it a popular show, the feeling for it is also fostered in the family, so that boys' heads are filled with it before they enter school. Here, also, as in many other matters, the weakness and folly of parents have a baneful efficacy in hindering educational improvement and school reforms. On this point it is remarked: "But what is to be said about the life at home? It is a farce to talk of debating societies and the like being available to combat this or, indeed, any other difficulty, so long as boys are sent to school primed, since the nursery, with the one idea that amusement is to be sought at school, and that a boy, if he is worth anything, will find it and make the most of it. The efforts of the professional teachers depend, to a great and generally unappreciated extent, on the cooperation of the parents. Meantime, the mischief is frequently done before the school-training begins. It is not very uncommon to find parents who have sent their son to a fashionable school, previously urging him to keep out of debt and make suitable acquaintances, but at the same time warning the poor child against getting too fond of books. Others, no doubt, are more cautious; but the traces of a genuine stimulus hence toward useful work are lamentably rare, and more rarely still are habits of reading encouraged away from school. Not, however, that we need always postulate reading; we may, perhaps, confess to a strong bias in its favor; we may recollect that discerning men, when the great literary preeminence of Germany is talked of in their presence, have been wont to point with pride to the broad diffusion of pure literary interest through the upper strata of our society, quite independent of any profession or hope of emolument, and challenge one to find the like in foreign lands; and we may judge from such indications as I have spoken of, and doubt if this superiority is as noticeable as ever. Again, we may feel, besides this, that to bring up a boy in ignorance or contempt of reading is, from many points of view, a deplorable error. Non-reading parents, we may think, do not know what it is they are keeping from their son; how they are depriving him of a great safeguard against temptation in his youth, and a lasting resource against weariness in his maturer age. They can not know what it is for harassed minds to be able to turn to literature and find there a refreshment that never fails in the midst of petty worries or heavy affliction, and, not knowing this, they tell him that he can do without reading, as if it were a thing of little worth. All this we may feel, but it is only a matter of opinion; our point of view just now may be thought peculiar; anyhow, we readily admit numberless other methods of awakening in a boy a genuine interest in one, at least, of the multitudinous forms of intellectual life which expand daily around him. There is no excuse for sending a boy to school with a disposition framed for frivolity, with idle instincts to be freshly infused by every holiday-time; whenever it so happens, something has gone wrong which need not have done so, and yet. so it happens in thousands of cases every year. Parents do not do this designedly. It is not easy to realize at once that a boy requires incessant support if he is to overcome his natural antipathy to learning anything, and certainly they have very little idea what are the dangers attendant on an idle school career. Anyhow, the result is an influx into so many schools of boys bred up to a spirit of inertia, and encouraged hence to nourish it. From this unwise preparatory training the unruly growth of athleticism has sprung.