Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Thoughts on athletic preferences

Dartblog has two posts up regarding an editorial questioning Dartmouth's athletic recruitment policies. The post at the second link, by way of defending the existing policy, reproduces in full an editorial from government professor Allan Stam describing his experiences as a student-athlete at Cornell. The post at the first link by recent grad Isaiah Berg defends reforming athletic policy by noting that, lyrical and well-written as Stam's op-ed is, it is hardly clear from it that large admissions preferences (as opposed to no preferences at all or very modest preferences) can give student-athletes the benefits that Stam identifies.  I agree with most of Berg's analysis, but I wanted to add a few thoughts of my own.

First, Berg doesn't cite any numbers in his post about the magnitude of the differences between recipients of athletic preferences at selective schools and those students who don't. Some such numbers are out there; this piece by Princeton professor Thomas Espenshade indicates that recruited athlete status is worth about 200 points on the SAT (on the 1600 scale.) To put that number into additional context, the same study found that being His panic is worth about 185 points and being African-American is worth about 230. There is a growing body of research showing that African-American and Hispanic students who receive racial preferences in admissions may actually learn less than their counterparts attending schools at which they are better matched on the basis of academic credentials; this amicus brief sums up the state of play in this field. Notably, due to the ill effects of mismatch, beneficiaries of race-based affirmative action appear less likely to receive degrees in science, technology, and engineering than their counterparts attending schools at which they are good matches or to pursue the Ph.Ds that would permit them to enter Stam's own profession (university teaching.)  Given that the credentials deficits Espenshade identifies between average recruited athletes and affirmative action beneficiaries are similar, it's entirely plausibe that the same mismatch effects apply, and university officials would be wise to be concerned about them.

Second, Stam conclucdes his piece by noting, "I often wonder if the loathsome dismissiveness with which America's intellectuals view athletes, soldiers, business people, and politicians lies in their own insecurities  rather than in any better sense of judgment they might have rather than the rest of us." I don't think that intellectuals generally have a better sense of judgment than most people, except perhaps in the limited domains that they have studied more closely than most people. Nor has it been my experience that most intellectuals are loathsomely dismissive of professional athletes, as opposed to benignly indifferent, and I find it hard to believe that any intellectual alive can be adequately loathsomely dismissive of most politicians for my taste (Richard Epstein perhaps excepted.)

That said, I do share Stam's concern that too many intellectuals are too dismissive of soldiers and of business people.  It is perhaps possible that immersion in intense athletic experience might make more such people less reflexively sympathetic to anti-military or anti-free market ideas. But one should not confuse sympathy to a political or economic idea with exposure to or engagement with a set of political ideas. It's been my experience that the children of Russian and Ukrainian immigrants, for example, are pre-disposed to be more receptive to libertarian ideas than kids whose parents are from other racial and ethnic groups; it's easy to understand why. But having tea with Ukrainian grandparents once a week as a nine-year-old as an introduction to libertarianism is a poor substitute for real exposure to the great libertarian thinkers (Hayek, Mises, etc.) and sustained discussion and debate about their ideas. The situation with left-wing anti-military and anti-capitalist ideas at elite universities, I suspect, is similar. The goal ought not to be to provide students with life experiences that will make them more receptive to these ideas, but to ensure that these ideas are actually taught and engaged with in the classroom.

Finally, most of us, in this day and age, want an intellectual class that includes both men and women. There are perhaps a few exceptions in the most conservative sliver of the population, but even many of them have gone to rallies for female politicians like Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin. I doubt that the military would've really welcomed 18-year-old five-foot-one-inch, ninety-two-pound  Isabel Archer as an enlistee. Perhaps they would have put her at a desk somewhere to analyze aerial photographs or maybe shipped her off to language school. And indeed, though there are a few women who will be strong enough to fight in combat and face the kind of physical rigors that Stam writes about, there are likely fewer women physically capable of doing so than there are men. While it's true that participating in varsity college athletics is less physically demanding than military work, Stam's entire vision of achieving personal excellence and leadership qualities through militaristic or quasi-militaristic physical discipline is one that seems more readily accessible to men than to women. How are those of us not capable of fighting in combat to achieve self-mastery and excellence? 

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