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August 15, 2009

Dealing With Divided School Loyalties

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

For quite a while now some people have been foolishly trying to abolish human nature.

Maybe they use themselves as examples by claiming to be "citizens of the world" and not of some grubby country. Perhaps they try to foster "noncompetitive sports" in the schoolyard. Or even promise, as did our beloved leader Barack H. Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign, that we would enter an era of post-partisanship if he were elected.

Part of human nature is the tendency to create and join teams, and that tendency is hard to swat down. Poor us, this predisposition can be strong and has the potential to create problems when we are faced with a situation of competing loyalties. Or maybe team-choosing isn't much of an issue. While the tendency is there, its focus and intensity can be fleeting. Let's say you are a Chicago Cubs fan and that, by some strange circumstance, the Cubbies don't make it to the World Series. So what do you do? Forget about baseball till February? Root for the National League team (as a sort of extension of the Cubs)? Or cheer on whatever team happens to strike your fancy? My take is that while the potential is always there, it gets triggered by circumstances.

Consider the matter of loyalty to a school, something that can range from strong to weak to even negative. Ordinarily this loyalty would be poised against a generic "other" or perhaps one or more traditional rival school (Michigan vs. Ohio State, Harvard vs. Yale, etc.). But if you attended more than one school (at the same educational level), which one do you root for most strongly? I'll have to go autobiographical at this point and leave it to commenters to add details.

I had no conflicts until I was in grad school. I got a masters at the University of Washington (where I spent my undergraduate years) and then went to Dear Old Penn for a doctorate. So do I "bleed purple" for the Huskies or am I loyal to the "red and blue " of those ferocious Quakers?

Tough call.

I spent more years at Washington and live about three miles from campus, so the school remains pretty much in my face. Dear Old Penn, on the other hand, is across the country in Philadelphia, a town my wife loathes, so I seldom get there. Fortunately, the two schools don't play each other in football, the only sport I care much about; this means I don't have to make a choice regarding where in the stands to sit. Dear Old Penn has more prestige than Washington and I prefer its red-blue-plus-white colors to Washington's purple and gold. I suppose I favor Dear Old Penn slightly for reasons of snobbery, aesthetics, and perhaps because I attended there more recently.

On the other hand, I'm not much pleased with either school and refuse to donate money because, like most of academia, they seem to be in the tank for my cultural and political enemies (yes, more side-choosing here).

As the last two paragraphs indicate, my depth of loyalty is pretty thin so far as universities are concerned. That's not because I had bad experiences; for the most part I enjoyed attending each. Perhaps it has to do with time, my having left the classrooms more than half a lifetime ago.

My change of school was voluntary. Other changes are not. In high school, if your family moves, you are likely to change schools. In college, paying high tuition fees might prove unsustainable and you switch to a more affordable alternative. Or maybe you have trouble maintaining satisfactory grades. Or perhaps you simply decide your choice was a mistake and want to go elsewhere.

Do you have school loyalties? Where do they reside if you have a potential conflict? On what basis do you decide where the greatest loyalty is focused?



posted by Donald at August 15, 2009


A small aside:

From a Canadian perspective, the US school and university system is rather odd in that sports teams seem to be as important to the institution and its students as the academic stream, while at least in Canada, they're far more like extra-curricular activities. (There's some attempt to emulate the American emphasis, but it falls far short - I doubt most alumni even remember the name of their high school's or university's team.)

My questions:

Are there any other countries in the world in which the sports aspect of educational institutions has such importance?

Does anyone happen to know the historical roots for this emphasis?

Posted by: Tom West on August 15, 2009 9:01 PM

I find that I split grad / undergrad. My BA is from Hendrix College, a small liberal arts school that I still have a lot of affection for. It's not like they have much national sports presence, though (or any other national profile, for the most part).

I went to Duke for grad school, though. And while I followed their basketball team for a few years afterwards, overall, my deeply unenjoyable time there ensures that I will never give the place a dime.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on August 15, 2009 10:48 PM

Penn and the University of Washington aren't really on the same level at all in sports terms. Penn plays minor-league football, and while its basketball team is in Division I no one really takes the Ivy League teams seriously.

Posted by: Peter on August 15, 2009 10:55 PM

Although I can understand a kind of residual minor loyalty to ones alma mater I find incomprehensible those middle aged men for whom a major ingredient in their identity continues to be that they are former Yalies or Harvard Men or Crimson Tiders. But then I also don't understand those whose lives depend on their membership in a particular country club: more or less the same crowd.

Posted by: ricpic on August 16, 2009 8:58 AM

Sports fandom is an entirely irrational passion. It may have biological roots - the excitement, the cheering, the group participation, almost certainly affect brain chemistry.

Loyalty to a school may not be sports based. Someone who was introduced to Great Books at college, who learned the core elements of his chosen profession there from great teachers, may feel a permanent sense of membership in that college as a community.

ISTR that there is (or was) pretty intense sporting rivalries between the top British universities. The Henley Regatta and all that.

Posted by: RIch Rostrom on August 16, 2009 2:33 PM

I was thinking about the regatta as well when I posted my message, but it seems rather unique. Does it extend beyond this one event?

Are there any European countries where soccer (football) has the same importance to educational institutions as football has in the USA?

Posted by: Tom West on August 16, 2009 5:13 PM

My emotional loyalty is to my undergrad school, Reed College. I have some professional loyalty to my *department* at the U. of Colorado, where I went to graduate school, but at the level, one's loyalty is more to one's profession or field than to the institution, perhaps.

Posted by: Chas S. Clifton on August 17, 2009 2:24 PM

Yes, America is obsessed with sports. It fits the anti-intellectual nature that makes us so good at practical pursuits like business. So against my better nature, I have to say it's probably good for the country.

Though I'd rather be a Frenchman if given my choice (less work, better food), I have to say that what works for them probably wouldn't work for us.

I like German caution. Unfortunately, I suspect the German system of caution and heavy regulation to avoid major suffering is probably inspired by, um, historical events during the last depression and probably hard to convince Americans to go in for...

Now the Swedes...another good nation, but we're not homogeneous or honest enough. Everybody would abuse the welfare state if it were as big as theirs.

I don't like sports, I'm pessimistic, I don't like risk, and I'm lazy. I guess I'm un-American :)

Posted by: SFG on August 17, 2009 7:39 PM

Enthusiasm for sports is like enthusiasm for anything else. It's something to get excited about, bond with other who share the same passions, etc. Rooting for a professional sports team is no different in my mind to being really into Robert Fripp or something similar. It's intoxicating to see fellow humans with extraordinary abilities in an activity you enjoy perform at a top level, whether that's football or music.

I genuinely don't get lasting loyalty and/or interest in one's alma mater, but then I went to college at night while working full-time with a family to support. I was in and out of there as quickly as possible.

Posted by: JV on August 17, 2009 9:10 PM

I don't think Americans are obviously or enormously more obsessed with sports than other nations. Tom's question was about the importance of sports at universities. In other countries, almost all sports (at least the hugely popular ones) work on the club system. In the US, colleges (in football and basketball that is) are the feeders into the top level club systems, i.e., the pro leagues. In other sports that don't have much of a campus presence--baseball springs to mind--their feeder system is clubs. Note as well, that in less popular sports like track and swimming, America is also unusual in the degree to which its colleges are the main training ground and competitive venue. There's almost nothing like the major track club system that exists in Europe, for example.

The question as to why a few major sports in the States have their major feeders from universities is an interesting one. I should note only that in the case of football at least, the college game WAS the national game, with pro leagues growing up only after decades of college game popularity.

Baseball, on the other hand, began as a club sport, and so never had the football situation of growing, almost as an afterthought, on a huge, already established college-based infrastructure.

And really, Americans aren't that fanatical about sports. Compare most of the world's attitude to soccer. Still, I would say that the most fanatical football and basketball fans in the US tend to be college fans, not pro followers, (and in places like Texas, followers of the football high school game). My guess is the pro game get less loyalty because it's become atomized, rationalized, and non-geographical, with players traded back and forth, and corp-sponsored stadia stuck out in nowhere land far from where the fans live. Less ability to build really fanatical tribal loyalty.

Posted by: PatrickH on August 18, 2009 9:23 AM

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