Sunday, September 27, 2009

Is America Losing Its Greatness on the Playing Fields of the East Coast?

By Barry Rubin

My son, Daniel, who is doing anthropological field work on American society at age 10, points out something interesting after he comes off the field in his soccer (football) game. But I can see it also.

The boys don’t play very aggressively. And by “aggressively” I don’t mean brutally or in a nasty or macho way. It's so far below that level that the concept of "macho" isn't in this universe at all. They really seem to hold back and, as much as my memory is accurate, they are far more diffident than when I was that age.

Is this the result of social conditioning and educational indoctrination in contemporary American society, or is it my imagination?

One reason that I think I might be on to something here is an American documentary I saw aired on Israeli television. It was a two-part program about how to raise a boy. I expected the worst and, sure enough, within minutes there was a scene on an American football (not soccer) field in which the coach was urging the players to be tougher.

The narrator was explaining that this was unnecessary. Why did the coach believe that boys should be aggressive? she asked. That was only because he was so conditioned when he was young, a delusion about the way men were supposed to be. Really? Are thousands of years of history to be dismissed so easily?

Or perhaps one might say: that’s why there have been so many wars in the past, we no longer need that sort of behavior, and so we are going to train them out of it.

That really does seem to be the conscious trend in educational philosophy now, right? And, of course, it has certain implications for foreign policy as well.

I should quickly add that what I’m saying probably pertains more to big-city and suburbs upper middle class young people. In the Mid-West, South, Mountain States, and rural areas, things have changed far less. Or perhaps it is a matter of the change coming only when those young people have gone to universities and been exposed to the kind of professors who seem dominant in those institutions nowadays?

I’m just raising questions here, having not spent much time in the United States during the past couple of decades. You tell me.

But there’s also something else accompanying this observation, and again perhaps I’m overstating the case. The coach and parents keep telling the kids how well they are doing, how every play they are making is terrific. My son mimics this with an exaggerated: “Isn’t that great!”

Even when they lose, even when they make a mistake, the emphasis isn’t on correction but on encouragement. There is much to be said for this, of course. It certainly builds self-esteem and that’s a good thing. But is it also a preparation for mediocrity, indifference between victory and defeat, loss of competitiveness?

Again, I don’t know. You tell me. In Israel, as my son points out, the coach yells at the kids and even curses at a “fashlan,” a real mess-up on the field. When they were picking the team at his Israeli school to play in the championships, the teacher told the students: “Don’t feel bad if you aren’t chosen but we have to pick the best players for the good of the class.” The idea was that the goal is to win, not just to make everyone feel good.

At the end of the game, which I think he played quite well, my son is upset. He’s very hard, even too hard, on himself because he didn’t play up to his own standards. It’s bad that he’s unhappy about it, yet it’s good also because it means he’ll practice hard and be determined to do better next time.

Obviously, every approach has its drawbacks. Kids have been long traumatized by pressure, over-critical parents, low self-esteem, and a sense of failure. They were also told, however, it doesn’t matter if you win or lose but how you play the game. This didn’t mean that it didn’t matter at all whether you won or lost but rather that the single most important thing was to fight hard and genuinely do your best. And if you don’t play well enough I’m going to show you how to do better.

That’s very different—I hope you see the distinction—from saying: Whatever you do is fine. That statement ends discussion, it ensures the status quo situation. It doesn't promote personal excellent, putting everything you have into the effort.

The Duke of Wellington—who hated his old school—didn't say, as it is often claimed he did, that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. Still there is some relationship between these two kinds of things.

Are Americans—at least elite Americans, at least a significant portion of Americans--being programmed to lose in the world and on the playing field by the current child-raising, educational, and politically dominant philosophy and leadership?

I honestly don’t know. You tell me.

Here's what one non-American correspondent writes to me: "This is certainly true. I taught soccer in the LA area, and this kind of capitulation mentality had already started, at least with some of the league officials and the refs then in the mid-1990's. Receiving encouragement when you do your best and fail is one thing, it is another thing when you do nothing and are told you are wonderful. In the latter case, you end up becoming Obama-like."

By the way, I should have added the following true story: In the soccer league of a wealthy area of Connecticut they don’t keep score—because winning isn’t important—and a coach or parent told one team before the game not to be too hard on the other one, that is, don’t try to score too many goals.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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