Earning Your Trophies (or Not)

The culture of youth soccer is hurting higher education, writes James Ricky Cox.

February 10, 2006

I fondly remember my days playing little league baseball. Although I usually played right field, my parents tell me that I played the entire outfield when the ball was hit. I did not think that much about winning or losing -- I just loved being with my friends and kicking around the dirt. At some point, I did realize the teams that played the best won the championship and each member won a trophy. One day while at a friend’s house, I stopped to admire his shiny golden trophies.It was at this moment that I said to myself “I want a trophy!” While I was not the brightest young man to play baseball in Paris, Tenn., I quickly deduced that I needed to be a better player and that my team must work together to win the championship. I am happy to report that the Moose Lodge won the B league championship in 1978.

In the past several years, youth soccer groups have formed all across the country and have expanded the access that kids have to organized sports. The opportunity for kids to play soccer is tremendous and has benefited numerous youngsters. One thing that worries me is the trend in which in many leagues, all the kids get participation “trophies” at the end of the season. Please do not e-mail me concerning self-esteem. I have heard the discussion and cannot grasp this concept. Interestingly, the first time I discussed this issue was at a faculty forum on the characteristics of current college students. Although many positive attributes were revealed at this forum, faculty members indicated that some students feel a sense of entitlement and that their attendance and meager participation and performance should be rewarded with at least a C in a course. I spoke up and termed this the youth soccer phenomenon. Although this is a broad generalization, some college students have never been challenged and want a trophy (a grade of C) for minimal effort and work because they were on the team (came to class).

Another event reminded me that the higher education version of a youth soccer league is not just at the student level. I recently heard a few administrators discussing a grant program for faculty aimed at improving teaching and learning. The conversation was such that I felt like I was listening to youth soccer coaches who proudly pass out participation trophies at the end of the season. There was less concern for identifying faculty who had written meritorious proposals and more concern for making sure every applicant gets a piece of the funding pie.

Certainly, not all students and administrators fit the mold described above. In fact, I hope they are in the minority. However, my somewhat exaggerated analogies do speak to the important issue of maintaining and promoting academic excellence at all levels of higher education. I am not the first or the last person to comment on academic excellence at the university level; and I suspect that this term is in most mission statements and numerous commencement addresses. A current problem with this term is that it has been overused and misused to the point that it has different meanings to the various stakeholders in higher education. Although most educators gravitate toward the principles of academic excellence that call for quality and relevant work with high standards for students and faculty, the term mediocrity is being used more often in discussions of higher education.

The association of mediocrity with higher education should be on the minds of every faculty member. Faculty members are facing an academic tug-of-war against some students who want less work and institutions that are accepting more paying customers not prepared for or willing to face college-level responsibilities. Challenges to academic excellence can be formidable, but it will be faculty members in classrooms, laboratories and across campus who must fight the battle against mediocrity in higher education on a daily basis. The youth soccer model will not be effective in this effort as faculty must provide courses, curricula and research opportunities that challenge students and only reward deserving students with academic trophies. Students who do not succeed must be inspired to try again and construct a plan to earn the trophies on their transcript.

The youth soccer approach is also not the best scholarly model for faculty scholarship and recognition. For example, I do not want to have a paper published or grant funded just because it was submitted nor do I want to publish work in a so-called “peer-reviewed” journal sponsored by my own university. The shiniest trophies faculty earn (papers or books published, grants awarded, tenure, promotion, etc.) only come after considerable work and critical peer review.

To be honest, I would not have it any other way because I know this system usually identifies and rewards excellence. I have had several papers rejected for publication and usually go through periods of disgust, frustration, anxiety and ultimately motivation to produce a better product. In the end, if a revised edition of a manuscript is published, it is a better piece of work and I am glad that I was “invited” to take a closer look at my work and words to produce a higher quality paper. Invitations for excellence extended to faculty from peers and to students from faculty will always result in the highest quality work and provide the best scholarly work and teaching/learning experiences for faculty and students.

Last year my parents had to move out of their house into a smaller apartment. I was asked to look through boxes that contained some of the sports trophies I had accumulated during my younger days. They were a reflection of many years of my life, and I like to think that I received each one of the trophies because I earned it or gave my best effort to a winning team. I only kept my very first trophy and a golf ball used to win a junior tournament when I was 10. I sent the rest of the plastic memories to the trash and I put the golf ball in my office at school. This MacGregor Tourney DX ball (number 4) holds a special place in my heart as it is a constant reminder that hard work usually pays off in the end and that dedication is just as important as talent.

Although I have used an analogy involving youth soccer, the overriding theme of this commentary is that the current environment in higher education will require professors to rededicate themselves to the principles of academic excellence that promote quality and standards and retard mediocrity. A famous quote by the late Vince Lombardi may help in this endeavor: “There's only one way to succeed in anything, and that is to give it everything. I do, and I demand that my players do.” If faculty members stop giving and demanding “everything,” there will be a real crisis in higher education.


James Ricky Cox is an associate professor of chemistry at Murray State University, where he is also a teaching scholar-in-residence at the Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology.


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