For the past three years there have been a handful of ads in heavy rotation on a radio station that broadcasts sporting events, mostly Mariners baseball. The ads tout the positive aspects of high school sports and their value to the participants and community. Leaving aside the question of motivation for airing the ads and whether scarce school dollars might be more usefully employed, the ads illustrate a common problem: the assumption that results from a particular process are due entirely to the process, without considering motivation.
A typical ad will illustrate high school sports participation as beneficial to the individual in terms of character and life skill development while the community benefits from people so trained. And this is all true. Participation in organized athletics requires the individual to develop mental toughness and a team-first attitude; qualities that aren’t nearly as common as they once were and sorely missed in society. The ads state in so many words that participation in high school sports improves the person and community.
What the ads don’t say is that folks who participate in high school sports self-select for that. By the time a person reaches puberty, they usually have a good idea of where their talents lie. People who are good athletes know they are good athletes; those that aren’t are equally aware. The athletically inclined young person is going to generally have superior discipline and motivation compared to the non-athlete. You aren’t going to take a socially awkward genius and turn them into a polished human being by forcing them to play basketball for four years. They and their teammates will hate it and it’s a waste of time all around.
But this is a common problem. People see the results of a process, and assume that if everyone went through the process or participated in an activity, then everyone would be better off. It’s where the ‘Everyone Must Go To College’ push started. Now we have tens of thousands of young people with enormous debt and nothing to really show for it. Not everyone needs or wants a college education, but people are made to feel like failures if they don’t go to college.
This one-size-fits-all coerced participation completely fails to take the individual into account. It’s the primary reason the military doesn’t like the draft. While people can be grouped within broad limits, they aren’t interchangeable lumps of raw material to be molded as the social engineers deem fit. When evaluating a process or institution, it’s important, especially with people, to understand why results occur. In human institutions the most positive results occur when the people participating want to take part and have the talent to maximize the experience. Outside the primary literacy skills, instructional processes tend to be more informative than transformative, in that people develop what they already have rather than acquire new skills from whole cloth.
There is a school of feeling that believes if one person has some ability not commonly found in the population, that individual has an ‘unfair’ advantage. And if you have a kindergarten mindset, that’s true. The only way to rectify this perceived imbalance is to have everyone participate, whether or not the majority gain any benefit or are even happy doing it. Because the perpetrators of these programs either don’t understand or are willfully ignorant of human individuality, their ideas will inevitably fail, leaving a trail of wasted resources and unhappy people.
Participation in organized sports is generally a worthwhile endeavor, as is education and military service, and those with the ability and inclination will find themselves better off as a result. But it’s important to realize that what’s good for some isn’t good for all.