John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Reflections in the Little League Baseball Park

John N. Gardner
President

During my 32 years on a major university campus I often attended events organized by the Athletic Department to recognize and celebrate the accomplishment of student athletes. And I would always leave thinking “Oh, if only we were as good at this kind of thing on the academic side……recognizing our students academic achievements—before and in addition to waiting for Commencement.” But, of course, we weren’t, and we aren’t.

I have two grown sons now. During the years when we all lived together I spent countless hours in the Little League ballpark for practices and games. I was definitely the odd ball parent. My briefcase was always with me (in the era before smart phones and the internet) and I never entered the park without something to read. I was reminded of what this scene was all about the other night.

My seven year old grandson was playing a doubleheader championship series for the end of his Little League season. This is in a South Carolina community, Lexington, a suburb of the state’s capitol, Columbia. The public schools there are better than the state’s average but living there years ago and returning now I always knew that the community was much more invested in its athletic facilities—particularly baseball. I had forgotten how enormous these facilities were, multiple playing fields, well illuminated, clubhouses for each, acres and acres of parking and many hundreds of parents out each night. And out enthusiastically too. Cheering the children on.

My grandson’s team won the double header and he contributed with a nice base hit from which he ran all the bases on in. There was a ceremony declaring his team the league champions and the head coach offered a homily which included a reminder to patronize the businesses that had sponsored the team. It was the perfect mix of extolling the virtues of competition, character building, and capitalism—with special emphasis on the competition and pursuit of the male values system—to which the ballpark complex is a living temple to pursue worship of this value system.

And I found myself trying to imagine what our country would be like if we could turn out hundreds of children and their families on a late spring night to watch children in spelling competitions; or solving math problems; or playing chess; or practicing debate; or in pre-pre college bowl type quiz games. Oh, John, get real. This will never happen.

So that brings us back to higher education. What can we do to better recognize our students’ academic accomplishments? How could we give college athletic departments a run for the money in this regard? We could bring students together in healthy competitive environments to foster the development of other kinds of skills. How could we bring all our students together for such ritualized competition around academic skills that would equally affirm male and female students? This could be done. That’s my successor generation’s challenge…one of many of them.

I’m still the oddball in the ballpark. Good thing there are universities for people like me.

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