The price of excellence

Here is an excerpt from an article by David Foster Wallace.  Its focus is on athletic prowess but the implications are wider.

Americans revere athletic excellence, competitive success, and it’s more than lip service we pay; we vote with our wallets. We’ll pay large sums to watch a truly great athlete; we’ll reward him with celebrity and adulation and will even go so far as to buy products and services he endorses.

But it’s better for us not to know the kinds of sacrifices the professional-grade athlete has made to get so very good at one particular thing. Oh, we’ll invoke lush clichés about the lonely heroism of Olympic athletes, the pain and analgesia of football, the early rising and hours of practice and restricted diets, the preflight celibacy, et cetera. But the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them: basketball geniuses who cannot read, sprinters who dope themselves, defensive tackles who shoot up with bovine hormones until they collapse or explode. We prefer not to consider closely the shockingly vapid and primitive comments uttered by athletes in postcontest interviews or to consider what impoverishments in one’s mental life would allow people actually to think the way great athletes seem to think. Note the way “up close and personal” profiles of professional athletes strain so hard to find evidence of a rounded human life — outside interests and activities, values beyond the sport. We ignore what’s obvious, that most of this straining is farce. It’s farce because the realities of top-level athletics today require an early and total commitment to one area of excellence. An ascetic focus. A subsumption of almost all other features of human life to one chosen talent and pursuit. A consent to live in a world that, like a child’s world, is very small.

What say you?


19 thoughts on “The price of excellence

  1. It seems to me, that these athletes, as part of their training, should be mandated to become Integral majors. This article may be about athletes, but it is evident that, by extension, we should apply this train of thought to education. Why is it acceptable to have a science major who cannot articulate his words? Why do we allow for English majors to be without a strong foundation in mathematics? Then I remember Plato, and the comments of Socrates. In the Republic, I believe, Socrates suggests that if the people are spread too thin they will not excel at their appropriate callings. There must be some balance. We must find some equilibrium that allows for a well rounded individual, but also for a person to excel in his own calling. In my eyes that balance can be found at Saint Mary’s College of California, the Integral Program. My only hope is that the people in our society begin to understand that allowing professors to indoctrinate their students will only lead to having a society that is not capable of progress; mainly because they will only be able to go as far as their professor has prepared them.

    1. Hm. Methinks we are back to the nature vs. nurture debate. Can a non-Integral student develop Integral qualities?

      Indoctrination is a loose term, so maybe we should define it further – for it does seem to me that Integral freshmen too go through some sort of indoctrination…

      There is one non-Integral major who is also a Rhoder scholar and a professional NFL athlete – Myron Rolle is his name:

      Rolle, who graduated in 2 ½ years from Florida State with a 3.75 GPA, spent the 2009 football season as a Rhodes Scholar, studying in Oxford, England at the highest academic level. Still, he was labeled by some as a football deserter — someone whose love for the game was questioned. He came back to the game in time for all the 2010 pre-draft activities, recording decent numbers at the scouting combine and in a private workout for NFL scouts.

      At the combine, Rolle tried to explain how he reconciled his love for football and his future dreams of a career in medicine. “That’s been a popular question that I’ve received here. My answer to them, which is a genuine and truthful answer, is that I think my pursuits academically have helped me in football. You learn discipline, you learn time management, you learn structure, you learn organization and as a football player those are obviously valuable assets and traits you can use to be great whether in film studies or on the field. I tell them I want to transform all of the positive traits I’ve learned in the classroom by the pinnacle of academic achievement, the Rhodes Scholarship, become an even better football player by it.”

      What say you now?

      Btw, Myron’s website is here.

      1. We should look at indoctrination compared with education; mainly a liberal education. I would say the difference between indoctrination and education is the ability to question the “doctrine” being proposed. As for indoctrination in Integral, I could see how we might see the begginings our path through Integral as indoctrination, but remembering my freshmen year, Lab, we were constantly questioning the program. The questioning was, in my eyes, productive, and essential to our success in the program. It is because of this that I am not willing to say that there is indoctrination in the program. What is being taught and where there is am emphasis is on the skills; mainly reading critically, structuring our arguements effeciently, proper communication, and from what I have written you might realize that not enough emphasis on spelling.

        1. King Contreras, you’re the best tyrant I’ve ever met – and how can I forget the lab discussions in The Grove! Ok – you guys are my very special, wonderful, exquisite Integral students. I mean, all Integral students are my beloved disciples, but these guys amazed me – I’d never seen a more Integral group than this one. How’s the soon-to-be sophomore class?

        2. The soon to be sophomore class are, in my eyes, and they eyes of many, the second comming; us being the first comming of course. They are very similar to us, and therefore a great group. I really like them and have great hopes for them. Also I don’t think that I am a tyrant, I would rather consider myself, although this may sound arrogant, a Philosopher King. Considering I think myself a Platonist, it seems appropriate. Just so you know, one of the main focuses in my life, for the time being, is the fight in the defense of the Liberal Arts, Great Books, and most of all of the Integral Program. There has been a serious attack on these, very important, things at Saint Mary’s it has truly bothered me. I wish to spread the word concerning them, and help others to understand what they are.

        3. There is a group at Saint Mary’s that call themselves our struggle is tied with you…aka…Our Struggle…here is their facebook page
          They have repetedly said that because the Great Books have been written by WHITE HETEROSEXUAL MALES, they should not be considered great, and they perpetuate racism and sexism. They want the seminar program to be restructured. One of them went as far as to say to me, “the only reason that I am talking to you is because of the color of your skin…if you were white, blonde hair and blue eyes I would not be speaking to you.” This is just one example of the mentality they have.

        4. Well, I might have to humble myself and ask for an explanation. I think I might be pointed down the right path of trying to see what your post were hinting at, but would feel better if you have me another hint.

          1. My first thought after reading your comment about that group was that I am allergic to intollerance. So I started looking for other people’s takes and came upon the lactic variety of intolerance and how it’s different from allergy. So – am I allergic to intolerance or am I just intolerant to intolerance? The cure would be different for each. Disengagement has been my modus operandi so far, but it’s very much like avoiding milk because it gives you gas. The intolerance is still there. What’s your treatment?

        5. You never addressed my question, so I’ll ask it again. Do you think a non-Integral student can develop qualities and attitudes that are Integral by your definition?

    2. This morning, I allowed myself to be heavily indoctrinated by Burr Leonard, The Gentle Tyrant. There is something in her indoctrination that I really like – her workouts make me think of pain as a valuable data point. Indeed, pain is an indicator that your posture needs modification; you do a slight adjustment and the pain disappears!

      Which reminds me of the everyday pains we go through. Would that we all were willing to make the slight adjustment there too! Imagine you are faced with a bully. It’s painful and unproductive to deal with him/her. Do you run away, or do you go for a slight change in dynamics?

    3. Well, if a question is asked twice it must mean it is very important. haha, sorry I should have answered earlier. The anwer is yes and no. Haha sorry but if we undersand an Integral student to mean a student who goes through, or is going through, the four year program at Saint Mary’s, then I say that a non Integral can learn the qualities of an Integral student. However, If we understand, the way I do, an Integral student to be somebody who lives the life style of the Program, then the answer is no. This may sound strange, but I say this because many of my professors have not graduated from the program, but I believe they live the program. Does this make sense…it seems kind of strange from my end.

      1. Why would someone care about “living the life of the Program”? What is it that Integral students develop that other students don’t? (Haha, remember those talks we had in The Grove now?)

        Define clearly and precisely what the Integral Program at St. Mary’s College of California is. Be prepared for grilling interlocution, too.

        1. Well, I think your first question is really asking, what is the life of an Integral? In others words how does an Integral live his life differently than a non Integral, an Integral in this sense is not limited to a person going through or having graduated from the program. Your next two question, I think, are different ways of asking the first question. I will attempt to develop an answer that will be well rounded enough to cover all three questions, which are really just one. Three in one, maybe this is a sign that Integral is a holy program as well. haha.

          It might be best to begin with a quote. “…it is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living”. The two words that I see as the most important are discuss and unexamined. An Integral life style is one filled with meaningful discussion and constant examination. For the time being I will let this be my answer. The best offense is a good defense, so I will jump the gun and ask the question, that I believe, you will ask. What is a meaningful discussion and what is constant examination? The follow up question would be why don’t non integrals do this, or what keeps them from doing this? Thus leading us to ask why do Integrals do this, or, better yet, what do Integrals have that facilitates this? This question, just like one in the dialogues of Socrates, might bring us in full circle taking us no where, but, I think they are all valid. Let the discussion being.

          1. You are not saying that the life of non-integral students is never filled with meaningful discussion and constant examination, are you? For if you are, we may have a tiny but serious problem. I know at least about 25 UC Berkeley undergraduates whose life was filled with Integral-style introspection. So please qualify and explain.

  2. Those students are Integral Students. I was trying to distinguish between a Program at Saint Mary’s and a life style. One might say that Integral student and Philosopher are synonomous. Integral student meaning somebody whose life is filled with meaningful discussion, and constant examination, this person may have never even heard of the Integral Program. I was most definetly not saying that only people who go through the program live a life of constant examination with meaningful discussion. I was using Integral student as a name for somebody who lives a certain life….I think this is confusing. The reason I had said this was because of the question about a non integral having integral qualities. What do you think?

    1. This exchange started with your reference to the attack against the Integral Program. Methinks you don’t yet have a convincing response, which may mean you haven’t really thought outside the box. Given your latest response, I, playing the devil’s advocate, may ask why one would need an Integral Program if Integral qualities can be develop in the absence of such a program. Think deeper – I think your freshman lab experience could be a good start.

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