The case for treating Super Bowl and science-fair winners differently

By Danny Heitman
Wednesday, February 9, 2011

In his recent State of the Union address, President Obama said that we need to teach our children "that it's not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair. We need to teach them that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline."

As another Super Bowl-winning team is celebrated, I've been thinking about the president's idea - and an earlier attempt to place victory in the classroom on the same footing with glory on the gridiron.

My high school, like many others, advanced our football team's Friday-night contests with a morning pep rally. Each week in autumn, the gym rafters vibrated with student cheers and rousing numbers from the marching band. Sitting on stage in front of their classmates, members of the football squad basked in the adulation.

But one year someone - perhaps it was my mother - suggested that our school's stellar students deserved a pep rally of their own. After all, shouldn't teens and faculty cheer for education, the reason the school was supposed to exist?

Our principal obliged by gathering the student body in the gymnasium to give a thumbs-up to the star pupils gathered on stage. I was among the honorees. Rising to the microphone, the principal cheerfully listed our recent accolades: the National Merit finalists, those who had taken medals at a regional academic rally and yes, a couple who had placed at the science fair.

Tepid applause rippled through the bleachers. Quite a few young spectators yawned. The band played earnestly as we filed back to our classrooms, and there were, for the rest of my high school career, no more pep rallies promoting schoolwork. I shrugged the whole thing off as a well-meaning flop.

That was 30 years ago, and I don't sense that much has changed. A few years back, not long after my son had started grade school, his teacher asked the students to draw pictures of their heroes. William, a self-described science nerd, sketched out a crayon portrait of a researcher in a white lab coat. His classmates, caught up in the fever of football season, almost invariably drew pictures of quarterbacks and cheerleaders.

This is the point, I suppose, when I should launch into a diatribe about our numbskull nation and its worship of brawn over brains. But I have enjoyed football, and I realize why it galvanizes public imagination in a way that more strictly intellectual achievements do not.

In football and other sports, the dividing line between winners and losers is compellingly clear at the close of each game. There's no ambiguity about outcomes, no real way to fake one's path to victory. That kind of clarity electrifies a crowd.

The life of the mind usually takes longer to score its touchdowns.

Intellectual history has its eureka moments and instant masterpieces, but in general, science and the humanities need a lot of time to sort out what pursuits are worthy of the laurel. An intellectual in search of quick acclaim is probably in the wrong business.

Denied the celebrity of the athlete, the true scholar learns to take the longer view, which is the kind of perspective we want successful thinkers and academics to have.

Most science-fair winners will never be as instantly celebrated as the winners of the Super Bowl, and that's probably as it should be.

Danny Heitman, a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of "A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House."


© 2011 The Washington Post Company