In October 2013, The Atlantic published an article damning the American high school system’s emphasis on sports, highlighting the amount of time, money, energy, and value that is taken away from other pursuits, namely academic ones, and funneled into the football team. It advocates the divorce of sports from school, claiming that test scores will go up and students would no longer feel pressured to organize their entire life around an extracurricular activity that interests some but not others.
This article calls into question the foundations of the typical American high school and therefore the holistic education that ASL emulates, promising in its mission statement “an outstanding American education.”
It is hard to deny the prevalence of sports at ASL when the project to create a new weight room and swimming pool is underway, assemblies are hosted celebrating our athletes, games are attended, and formally dressed students preparing for competition walk the halls. At the same time, however, as athletics pervades the school, the halls are covered in student artwork and the new building will house new facilities for arts.
It is clear that the holistic American education that ASL offers balances not only academics, but also athletics and arts. Principal Jack Phillips believes that the arts and athletics are integral to our model of schooling. “They are essential parts of what an American education is, in terms of a recognition that school isn’t just the cognitive elements,” he said.
Although these three elements, of education, academics, arts, and athletics, are all very visible in the form of spirit assemblies, ceramics classes, or seemingly ubiquitous assessments, they vary in the way they are valued, their goals, and their benefits. The role of sports and arts in particular is very divergent; one a collaborative extracurricular endeavor, the other a more individual activity that is scheduled into the school day.
These two differences alone deeply affect the way that these two activities are perceived. Varsity field hockey player Sarah Dolan (’14) feels that athletic accomplishments are more widely celebrated. “You see a lot more talk about sports, whether in assemblies or social media,” Dolan said. Although enrollment in the two programs is more or less equal, Dolan feels that a greater value is placed upon sports. Phillips echoes this sentiment, saying that, “It appears to me that the athletics are more visible here than the arts.”
The reason for this stems from a couple of issues, mainly the greater value that the American education system places on sports and their collaborative nature. “Within the American context, sports, in society, have a higher status value than the arts,” Phillips said, adding that in order to counteract this, it is important that arts be scheduled into the school day in order to generate excitement and interest.
The team element of sports also makes it easier for the entire school to get involved and excited in sports in a way that is a little harder with arts. “It’s easier to support a team rather than an individual,” Dolan said.
Dolan is not alone in this opinion. Peter Skow (’14), a cross country and track and field runner and actor chooses not to be a part of the fall play and is only able to pursue theater in the advanced acting class because he feels loyal to his sports teams.
“I feel a greater responsibility to my teams,” Skow said, “for me, and the student body, sports take precedence as an extracurricular.” Given the strong collaborative element of sports and the greater availability of athletic pursuits to do outside of the school day, sports are strongly dominant in school culture.
Despite this, Emily Lovett (’15), who has been involved in the theater program and is a member of writer’s seminar, feels that art has a privileged place at ASL, noting that “there is a really supportive community, especially with the teachers.” The art program has been influential in her life throughout high school, and for her, she does not see sports as necessarily dominating the cultural value at school.
Aya McCarthy (’14) agrees with Lovett. “I think that it is less important here since we are a city school, and that it is a bigger deal at a place like Cobham,” McCarthy said. She has been heavily involved in the visual arts program throughout her high school experience.
Varsity Soccer Coach Greg Gerken has observed a similar problem. He views ASL’s location as a major hindrance to the school’s ability to build community.
Whereas other school sporting events are an opportunity for the school to come together, many sports at ASL, such as soccer, softball, rugby, swimming, and track, have athletic facilities which are far away and encourage the student body’s subdivisions to diverge instead of coming together. This mitigates the effect of sports on the overall student body, something that The Atlantic advocates but Gerken laments.
Nicole Adams (’14), who is in the AP visual arts course this year and has traveled out to the school’s Canons Park facilities to play varsity soccer every fall since sophomore year, has also observed this trend: “The sports program is definitely less dominant here than at my old school and the arts are a lot more accessible. I didn’t even take art classes at my old school because there weren’t any good opportunities,” she said. Nonetheless, she still feels that “sports are much more important here [than art]. They are just more talked about and visible.”
The holistic American education is about educating not just the student, but also the person, and academics, athletics, and arts are all integral parts of that education. Striking a healthy balance between these three, both for the community and the individual, is the task at hand.
Whether the sports community needs to be more present, with practices and games occurring at the school across the board, or less present, with fewer formally scheduled sports and practices, depends on the future of the American educational system. However, the equal enrollment in both arts and sports and the separation of ASL from the location of many of its sporting teams already seems to indicate the direction that the school is moving in, although the importance and high value of sports in our community is still clear.