Dunking socks: The casual betrayal of the American Student
It all came clear to me a couple months ago.
I was sitting in my kitchen, watching the local news, surrounded by a few of my daughters’ hovering, indifferent, mostly college-age friends. They paid no attention to the news—Why would they?--until the reporting switched to the University of Kansas. This perked them up.
Coach Roy Williams had just abandoned the poor Jayhawks, and the student body was awash in self-pity. As testament, the TV cameras showed several bereaved students wandering pitifully around campus in T-Shirts that read “Benedict Williams.”
“Benedict Williams?” said one of the kids in my kitchen. “What’s that all about?”
“Don’t you get the reference?” I asked surprised. No, he didn’t. I asked the others. They didn’t get it either. I explained to my bewildered kitchen mates that the “Benedict” referred to Benedict Arnold. “Who was Benedict Arnold?” No one had ever heard of him. I clarified the reference. It all came as news. And these by the way were the “smart kids,” the ones that had gone to the “good” high schools, both private and suburban public, the kind who get 800s on their “renormed” SATs.
How wonderfully absurd must have been that day on the Lawrence campus, I thought, all these young sports fans wandering around in “Benedict Williams” t-shirts, quite likely put up to it by some indignant professor with suddenly devalued courtside seats, and no one getting the dig. “Benedict Williams? What the hell does that mean?”
I had listened patiently to the debate over the years as to whether declining test scores had any meaning. Yes, they do. Kids today are flat out stupider. My mother didn’t even go to high school, and she knew who Benedict Arnold was.
There is a larger problem here too. “Benedict Arnold” is the kind of reference that serves as a cultural marker, a guidepost to right behavior in a nation whose only bond is an idea. Given that this idea was forged at the very time of Arnold’s treachery, kids who don’t know Arnold, don’t know the idea. Without such shared understandings, the bond begins to fray. Teen Taliban John Walker Lindh, for instance, has shown no signs of understanding either the concept of America or of treason, and he too went to the best of suburban high schools.
One thing was evident watching the news both at Lawrence and Chapel Hill: a whole lot of folks seem to care more about basketball than they do about education. As a consequence, student athletes have been faring much better as athletes than as students.
Take my basketball career. Please! At the peak of it, I could dunk a pair of socks. This may not sound like much, but in my b-ball happy high school of six hundred boys, no one could dunk a basketball, not even the black guys on our team. We had one guy who could dunk a volleyball, and several other sock dunkers, but alas league rules discouraged us from playing a game with either volleyballs or socks.
In my sophomore year, the league realigned, and a few new teams were added to our schedule. One, the aptly named Power Memorial, had a very tall, skinny sophomore whom I had seen play as a freshman. I had not been particularly impressed. His much shorter, stronger opponents had beaten him up unmercifully.
But when we went down to Power for the game, I could see that things had changed. Power may have been in our league literally, but they were not in it metaphorically. We had a team. They had a program. The program featured sophisticated weight rooms and training regimens and coaches who did little else but coach. When I saw Lou Alcindor take the court, I knew we were toast. He had put on about 40 pounds of muscle from the year before and learned how to jump. Our volleyball-dunking center proved no match. They beat us by 15. In our respective senior years, they beat us by 50. For those who do not know Alcindor it is only because he changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
In time, high schools all across the country began to mimic the Power model. They invested in weight rooms and training programs and hired coaches based on their ability to win. The parents meanwhile invested much of their time and money in pumping up their kids’ game. This meant ferrying them to practice, sending them to special camps and training programs, and buying them $200 pairs of sneakers. Hell, my mother moaned when I asked for eight bucks to but a pair of Converse, and to get to a game, we would take the subway. Adults didn’t go, not even when we played Power.
If the value of these investments is debatable, the productivity gains are not. Today, the average high school basketball player can dunk—a basketball. These kids run faster, endure longer, jump higher, lift more, and handle the ball better than we ever imagined we could. In every tangible, testable way today’s high school basketball players outplay the kids of a generation ago.
But they don’t outthink them. A generation ago the average student could do the academic equivalent of dunking a basketball. Today, students are dunking academic socks. It is not for lack of money. Despite what you hear, schools have made deep investments in education. The real dollar per pupil expenditure is twice what it was when I was in high school. At 16 kids per teacher, public school classes today are 50% smaller than a generation ago, 100% smaller than two generations ago. Teachers have 50% more advanced degrees than just 20 years ago. The facilities are superior. As to technology, heck we didn’t even have typewriters.
On every testable measurement, student performance has gone down. That’s right, down. From their peak in the early 60s, SAT scores dropped through the floor for the next fifteen years—“the great decline,” educators call it--before parking lot dope-smoking leveled off in the late 70s and Asian immigration increased. To boost everyone’s self-esteem, and avoid further embarrassment, the SAT “renormed” the test in 1996. The high school graduation rate, which peaked at 77% in 1968, has since declined to 69%. And on the so-called TIMSS, the International mathematics and Science Study, the other industrial countries routinely whip our butts, even France.
Caroline Hoxby, a young black economist, has created perhaps the most reliable gauge of educational productivity for public schools. According to her calculations, the output per inflation-adjusted dollar declined 39% from 1971 to 1998. Had productivity merely stayed flat during that time, Hoxby tells us, the average student today would be clocking scores in the range that our best 10% currently do.
This academic sock-dunking would be bad enough if we were appalled by it. But we are not. Only the folks in the much-mocked Kansas City School District have the good sense to know they have a problem. Suburban school boosters are too busy congratulating themselves on “our excellent schools” to recognize that about the only schools they are outperforming are in the KCSD.
The bottom line
The bottom line is this: our students have been betrayed. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether the betrayal is by accident--the result of historical forces beyond our control—or by design. If by design, then we need to ask whether there are people in the system—parents not excepted--who have been putting their own selfish needs in front of their students. If yes, then we need to identify these Benedict Arnolds in our midst and, at a minimum, reeducate them.
Whoever the hell Benedict Arnold is.
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