Academic competition deserves same status as sports

The cheers reverberated off the walls as my son scored the tie-breaking point that propelled his team past my own squad delivering the trophy to his school. It wasn’t a three-pointer from the perimeter or a circus-catch at the back of the end zone or even a last-second escape. It was the third correctly answered question in a tie-breaking round between one of my Escalante Knowledge Bowl teams and my boy’s crew of pals from the other middle school in town.

This moment came to pass at the end of a three-hour span in which about 200 academic questions were posed to all the teams competing in our most recent Knowledge Bowl meet. These questions tasked the competitors’ knowledge of such topics as folktales, algebra, literature, biology, music, physics and geography, to name only a few. And even though the winning answer was the correct identification of an echo derived from a description of the distance and delay necessary for the human ear to distinguish the phenomenon, it sure felt like a Super Bowl winning field goal. For both sides. There was a direct correlation between the heights of elation felt by the entire Miller team and the depths of disappointment that beetled the brows of my Escalante contenders. The point of intersection occurred at the juncture of caring.

We’ve all seen that look at the end of a soccer or volleyball match. It’s a hallmark of sport, this winning and losing. It’s why sport is so compelling. But I’ve seen that same face, that same concern, that same wholesale investment in academic competition, too. And I would argue that academic competition is more gripping than sport. Pitting our knowledge and creativity and intellectual perseverance against the efforts of another is real life, not some manufactured game. Politicians and plumbers, historians and bricklayers, doctors and carpenters do this every day. But our society values a smooth jump shot more than the design of an engaging lesson plan. We see this in the money that we throw at sport.

As a teacher, I have witnessed the joy of victory in the smiles of students whose National History Day project is chosen to move onto state and national competition. I have seen the sorrow on the face of a child when his or her Invention Convention project doesn’t make the cut. I’ve heard the satisfaction in the voices of our own high school aerospace team members as they share the experience of a job well done. I know the hope that Destination Imagination teams hold when looking at performing better next year. These emotions are as pointed as the pleasure and pain felt by athletes at every level of competition.

In the age of assessment and achievement, communities want schools to grow their children intellectually. Rightfully so. But where are our priorities? Are we paying to produce scholars or athletes? Does the aerospace adviser make as much as a football coach? Are Knowledge Bowl coaches compensated at the same level as soccer coaches? Do we pay someone for the enormous effort required in fostering science fair or the energy it takes to run the geography bee? A quick perusal of our own district’s salary schedule reveals the truth. Save the high school speech and debate coaching position, our district supports athletics over academics in extracurriculars. But we’re no different than anywhere else. So goes the nation, so goes Durango.

I am decidedly not anti-athletics. My children have learned much on the pitch. And I’m not advocating for a diminished role for athletic coaches. They deserve to be paid for their immense sacrifice. No, I look to the elevation of academic sponsors and coaches as the answer. That the speech and debate coach is placed on the same level as the head volleyball coach is a step in the right direction. Children learn from sports and they learn from academic competition. Each is important, therefore, they should be treated comparably.

I just know I felt as much emotion when my son got that answer right as I did when, together, we won our first football playoff game this season. But I don’t know the word to describe my simultaneous emotions of disappointment for my Knowledge Bowl team and pride in my boy’s accomplishment for the other school. Perhaps the Germans know a term for that. On our drive home, after cleaning up post-meet, Alexander said to me, “I need to learn more about American folklore.” Yes!

That is the same drive that athletes show when they practice free throws after a game because they want to improve. That is the goal: getting better. Now, if he and I can just figure out how to read while we’re passing the lacrosse ball to each other, we’ll have a shot at winning the game.

John Hise is an instructional coach at Escalante Middle School. Reach him at jhise2@durango.k12.co.us.