December 14, 2008

Hockey and the Purpose of Education

Have you ever watched a sporting event with someone who knows nothing about the game? Hockey is a big sport where I live. I've watched plenty of hockey games with people who know next to nothing about the sport, and the scene is a familiar one to many sports fans.

The person I'm watching the game with notices that the play has stopped for no apparent reason. I explain to her that an off sides violation has occurred, and then I explain what an off sides violation is. She says that's a stupid rule. Then I explain why it's not a stupid rule.

One of our players scores a goal and the crowd goes wild, more so than usual. To her, it's just another goal, and she doesn't understand why people are so excited for this one. I calmly explain that the opposing team has been on a 5-on-3 power play for the last minute and a half, and our goal was short handed. "Oh, I guess that's quite an accomplishment," she notes, still not fully realizing how rare a feat this really is.

The teams come out for the second period and she exclaims, "hey, they're skating toward the other end of the ice now!" Later, she asks why there's no goalie in our goal any more, sparking a discussion about delayed penalties.

This game would be so much more enjoyable to her if she understood more about it. She's missing most of the things that happen in the game because she doesn't know about them. Watching the game would be much more fun and exciting to her if she knew why a 5-on-3 shorthanded goal is such a big deal. She'd be able to differentiate between a passing strategy and an icing strategy, and she'd know when each of those strategies should be used. She'd see patterns such as wraparound attempts and zone defense. If she knew the history of the teams involved, she'd understand the significance of a particular game. The game would take on a whole new richness for her if she only could see these things. But now, she doesn't even know what she's not seeing. She doesn't know what she doesn't know.

Still, she can get a pretty good general sense of what's happening in the game without knowing these things. She can see who the good players are, who is trying hardest, who is better at scoring, and who is better at blocking shots. She knows an exciting close shot when she sees one. She knows who's winning and losing. She can differentiate between an exciting game and a boring game. She can generally follow what's going on. She just doesn't appreciate the full richness of the game because there is a lot that she's missing.

The difference between a serious hockey fan and a casual one at a game is analogous to the difference between an educated person and an uneducated one in the world.

Education adds so much richness to life. Uneducated people can still see what's going on in the world. I don't need to know what syncopation and diminished chords are to listen to jazz, but I appreciate the music much more if I do. Uneducated people know that gas prices are high. But they simply complain about it, and educated people have to explain to them why they're so high. Uneducated people blame the TV anchors for inaccurate weather forecasts; educated people turn to chaos theory and understand why they're inaccurate in the first place. I'm sure you can think of many examples from your own content area.

Uneducated people think that learning is boring. What they don't realize is that just like watching hockey is much more fun when you know something about it, living in the world is much more fun when you know something about it. Just like the casual hockey fan misses half of the interesting stuff that happens in a game simply because they don’t know about it, uneducated people miss half of the interesting stuff that happens in the world for the same reason.

This isn't an attempt to put uneducated people down. For many, pursing higher education doesn't make practical sense. What I'm trying to argue here is that education is valuable for its own sake. I'm speaking to students who don't understand when they're ever going to use calculus; or who don't want to learn about government because they don't plan on becoming a politician; or who dislike organized athletics because they'll never become a professional athlete. It doesn't matter whether or not a particular course of study leads directly to a practical outcome. What matters is that your education allows you to see things in the world that you wouldn't otherwise see. A good general education makes life richer. Things make more sense to you.

1 comment:

arbomphr said...

Hi Joel ---

I came to your site and as a Canadian of course I went right to the hockey post. I appreciate a good hockey analogy. Thanks for the insight.

I'm also writing to say thank you for the comment on my writing partner's post on Teaching with Depression. We we hoping you would be willing to repost it on our blog, as we're just starting up and trying to get as many people posting comments as possible.

Here's the link to the original post: