Looking ahead to the Olympics this month, Adam Gopnik cleverly writes in The New Yorker that "Americans become passionate about athletes we have never heard of participating in games we do not follow trying to please judges we cannot see according to rules we do not know." Mr. Gopnik sees this fascination bred by nationalism. But within American culture, we should also be attuned to the narratives of individual excellence that dominate coverage of the Olympics. These narratives extol the virtue of single-minded dedication to specialization and narrowly defined excellence.
The heroism of athletes unfolds in stories presented to us by the press. These stories stress the years of intense training and the mental and physical discipline necessary to become, however briefly, the best in the world at some specific sport — whether it be beach volleyball, discus hurling or synchronized swimming. The stories are indeed compelling, but are they useful exemplars of social and educational values? That is, do the trials of Olympic athletes provide lessons for us all about discipline, dedication and success? Do they offer insight into contemporary debates about education?
I would suggest the answer is "no." While I admire as much as anyone the skill and grace on display when watching the world's best compete, I feel queasy about the individual stories that tell of athletes being singled out for specialized sports at a very early age, training to an extent that often denies them an ordinary childhood and adolescence, and pushing their bodies to dangerous lengths. Increasingly, we see sports dominated by extreme physical specimens, from tiny gymnasts to giant basketball centers. Doping scandals throughout the sporting world are a predictable outgrowth of the extremely steep pyramid of athletic competition and the outsized rewards for scaling that pyramid.
Most of us will never receive an Olympic medal or even reach the distinction of being one of the most celebrated individuals in our chosen area of endeavor. We will, however, strive to lead rich and rewarding lives. In the professional world, we are likely to find ourselves in roles that require a wide range of skills, not a narrow area of excellence. Engineers discover they need writing and presentation skills; writers discover they need fluency in information technology.
We may also find ourselves thriving in job challenges at age 40 that we couldn't have imagined at age 20. Fans may well worry what fate awaits these extraordinary athletes when they outgrow the brief window of being competitive. For most of us, our success and satisfaction may rely more on being able to do lots of things reasonably well than on being an extraordinary talent in a very narrow area. This dynamic is even more applicable outside of work, where successful relationships with friends and family and avocational pursuits are the keys to happiness and satisfaction.
We once called Olympic athletes "amateurs," meaning they pursued their sports out of love rather than for financial compensation. Though Olympic athletes are surely passionate about their sports, they haven't been amateurs for a long time. Yet for most people, amateur pursuits enrich their lives in countless ways, whether it is playing piano or community softball, or acting in community theater. Those skills are nourished in private lessons and in formal schooling. Creative writing or drama classes should not be judged solely by the number of published writers or career actors they produce but rather by the many ways in which they enrich people's lives.
My uneasiness about the Olympic paradigm is the corollary to a plea for the virtues of well-roundedness, for breadth of knowledge and experience — for what, in academia, we call liberal learning. Philosophy classes are not just for budding philosophers, nor are biology classes just meant for future doctors.
This year's Olympic Games come at a time when demands that education be more strictly job oriented have intensified. The word that connects these two areas is "training." For those amazingly skilled Olympic hopefuls, training is indeed the right model for reaching their goals. But for most prospective productive and engaged citizens, training is not a substitute for genuine education. A full life involves gaining knowledge and competency in a variety of subjects, not just in areas where we are most talented.
It takes nothing away from the achievements of Olympic athletes to see them as exceptions rather than rules. Let's celebrate their distinctive accomplishments while remembering that their unique stories are not necessarily paradigms for the rest of us.