Stuart Buck: Make School More Like Sports

by Robert Pondiscio
June 3rd, 2010

In his second and final post on his book Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation, Stuart Buck looks at the differing attitudes toward academics and athletics, and suggests that de-emphasizing individual grades might be an effective approach. — rp

What then, you might ask?  If the “acting white” charge arose with desegregation, am I arguing that segregation was better?

Not at all. Segregation was like a cancer.  When you have cancer, you’ll take almost any drug to block it.  But a powerful anti-cancer drug may have side effects — such as crippling nausea. You have to try to address the side effects, not sweep them under the carpet simply on the ground that anything is worth it to fight cancer.

The same is true with segregation.  Segregation was worth fighting.  Still, the way that desegregation occurred led to side effects that should not be ignored.

What can we do now?  I have no magic bullet or panacea to offer here. Changing cultural attitudes is hard work, and one of the main points of my book is that the best-intentioned governmental efforts may affect cultural attitudes in ways that no one anticipated.   

Still, I do suggest one idea that I think has some promise: eliminate individual grades, and let students compete against other schools in academic competitions. 

This idea is far from original.  Rather, it comes from the eminent sociologist James Coleman. Coleman observed the striking fact that while students regularly cheer for their school’s football or basketball team, they will poke fun or jeer at other students who study too hard or who are too eager in class: “the boy who goes all-out scholastically is scorned and rebuked for working too hard; the athlete who fails to go all-out is scorned and rebuked for not giving his all.”

But this is odd, is it not?  Why are attitudes toward academics and athletics so different?  Sports are more fun than classwork, of course, but that does not explain why success would actually be discouraged in class.

Coleman’s explanation was disarmingly simple: The students on the athletic teams are not competing against other students from their own school.  Instead, they are competing against another school.  And when they win a game, they bring glory to their fellow students, who get to feel like they too are victors, if only vicariously. 

But the students in the same class are competing against each other for grades and for the teacher’s attention.  Naturally, that competition gives rise to resentment against other children who are too successful (just as students will hate the football team from a cross-town rival).  In Coleman’s words, the scholar’s “victories are purely personal ones, often at the expense of his classmates, who are forced to work harder to keep up with him.  Small wonder that his accomplishments gain little reward, and are often met by such ridicule as ‘curve raiser’ or ‘grind,’ terms of disapprobation having no analogues in athletics.”  

Indeed, in the first study that found the “acting white” criticism, sociologists pointed out that “athletes are exempt from the ‘Uncle Tom’ label because athletic achievement brings credit to the whole group while intellectual achievement does not.”

Coleman’s suggestion, therefore, was that if you want the students’ attitudes towards their studies to resemble their attitudes toward sports, you should minimize the role of grades — which involve competition against one’s classmates.  In his words, we need to get rid of the “notion that each student’s achievement must be continually evaluated or ‘graded’ in every subject.”  

Instead, such grades should be “infrequent or absent,” and should be replaced by “contests and games” between schools, such as “debate teams, music contests, drama contests, science fairs, . . . math tournaments, speaking contests,” etc. Then, the students in any one class or school would have a greater incentive to encourage their fellow students to study hard, and to take pride in their fellow students’ success.  In Coleman’s words, “I suspect that the impact upon student motivation would be remarkably great — an impact due to the fact that the informal social rewards from community and fellow-students would reinforce rather than conflict with achievement.”

 Stuart Buck is a Distinguished Doctoral Fellow at the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform. An honors graduate of Harvard Law School, he has published scholarly articles in Phi Delta Kappan, Harvard Law Review, and elsewhere.