Unlike many in our society, I find myself becoming less rather than more inter-ested in the NCAA basketball tournament, otherwise known as “March Madness.” And I am surely one of very few who think that 64 teams is at least 32—and perhaps even 48—teams too many. (I don’t really count the additional four, Virginia Commonwealth University’s run this year notwithstanding.) This may, of course, be due simply to general contrariness on my part, a suggestion of my wife’s, to which I must give some credence. But I think there’s more to it than that alone.
I have been watching the tournament for years, from a time when its organizers could only dream of its current level of popularity. Before it became the thing to do, before there were office pools, before Mike & Mike began their wagers, I used to fill out brackets and make my picks. Now, however, exciting though many of the games may be, the tour-nament seems to signify less and less. Or perhaps I should say—what for me is the significant point—that it bears less and less relationship to the regular season that began back in late November and made its relentless way through to early March.
No one could suppose that the “national champion” is necessarily, or even probably, the best team. What the national champion has, as CBS will not cease telling us, is “one shining moment.” And I have begun to think I am less interested in shining moments than in the course of a life—or, at least, a season.
The problem here is not one that has infected only college basketball. The NBA playoffs, stretching well into June, when baseball should have our undivided attention, have made its regular season largely irrelevant. (The same is true of hockey, but who really cares? I have no idea what might be true of soccer, since what human beings can do without using their hands is not nearly as interesting as what they can do with them.) Al-though the advocates of a college football playoff system have not yet achieved their goal, the number of bowl games—a nice round four when I was a boy, all played on New Year’s Day—has grown to a point where no one could possibly care about them. Even baseball, the epitome of a game whose regular season is supposed to be a long grind that tests players’ mettle in countless ways, continues to expand its postsea-son—even if it means playing baseball in the snow.
Perhaps my psyche has been shaped by the baseball of my childhood. In any case, I like a long and mean-ingful season that is not just a prelude to an extended spasm of postseason activity. A long season is a school for perseverance and humility. It teaches us something about character, which can only be developed over the course of time. It teaches us that each moment—not just that shining one—has its place and its significance in life’s trajectory. It teaches us that there are seasons of life—ups and downs, slumps and hot streaks, days when we’re at the top of our game and days when our bodies rebel and refuse to cooperate. No one remains at the peak of his powers indefinitely. And when we are no longer in our prime, it teaches us to find ways to make do with fewer capacities.
If I may switch for a moment to another kind of per-formance in which excellence counts, we might ponder the lesson to be learned from a story Sydney Eddison recounts (in Gardening for a Lifetime, a book about how one’s approach to gardening must change as one grows older) of the violinist Itzhak Perlman, who as a boy was struck with polio and who as a man must walk with the aid of leg braces and crutches.
At a concert on the night of November 18, 1995, at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City, one of the strings of his violin suddenly snapped during the performance. Stunned, the audience held their collective breath, expecting Perlman to stop and leave the stage. Instead, he paused, then continued playing—adjusting, creating, compensating as he went along, and when he put down his bow at the end of the concert, a mighty roar of applause filled the hall. When it had died down, he spoke to the audience: “You know, sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.”
Only a long season can permit us that discovery.
My hit-and-miss attention to this year’s NCAA tourney coincided, as it hap-pened, with my reading of Andrew Ferguson’s Crazy U, the story of his son’s journey through the process of applying to colleges. Periodically, as I sat and read, I would laugh aloud, get up to find my wife in another room, and read an especially good passage to her. Funny though it is, however, the book is at a deeper level dead serious. It takes aim at aspects of the college “experience” that ought to concern us and one, in particular, that is not unrelated to my desire for a long season that really matters.
Now it happens that I have been teaching for some thirty-six years at the college level—my own long season. And when I read Ferguson’s chapter on the application process itself—a process that has inevitably shaped many aspects of my long season—it was hard not to become annoyed at what colleges and universities are doing. At a time when high school students are unlikely to have discovered what posi-tion they are best suited to play and, at their very best, can hardly be done with spring training, admissions officers—mistaking these applicants for Montaigne—ask them to write about themselves. Yet, “writing well about yourself,” as Ferguson notes, “even if you’ve been hectored into it by every teacher since kindergarten, is a feat that only the most accomplished writers can pull off.”
Applicants must write what Ferguson calls the “Me Essay,” which, whatever its precise content, forces the student to search for a shining moment to recount, a moment in which he or she was, for better or worse, the center of attention. The essay invites and encourages—demands, in fact—a certain insincerity, as students look for something that will catch the attention of admissions counselors hastily reading a large stack of essays. The es-says must respond not to questions or topics, but to “prompts,” which turn out to be a variety of approaches to the same topic: oneself. The qualities the prompts encourage are self-absorption and exhibitionism, “the unwholesome thrill,” as Ferguson puts it, “that some people get from gyrating before strangers.”
At the very outset, therefore, we seduce students into thinking—it is less their fault than ours—not in terms of a long season but of shining moments. No wonder they cannot be at ease without lots of grades—opportunities to pile up points along the way during the se-mester—rather than allowing a semester to unfold as a long, slow process of learning. No wonder when I assign them, say, Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars, they want to tell me not how Walzer shapes his argument but how they feel about his conclusions. Reading him ought to be just the start of a long process, extending well beyond a semester, of thinking about the issues he raises. As I do what we call lec-ture—but which really means, as Roger Rosenblatt once put it, puzzling aloud in front of students for a series of weeks—they should learn that life must be a long journey of thinking aloud together, not just a series of shining moments of insight.
We ask our students to fill out course evaluations, as if at the end of a semester they should really know what profit they have gained from this course, what has or has not been important for their thinking. That sort of knowledge seldom comes so immediately. I have found in recent years that if you teach long enough there comes a day when you occasionally get an email from someone whom you taught years ago—someone who writes just to make contact, to mention a class they once took from you, or an idea that has stuck with them over the years. These writers are not always students whom I remember. I get out the folder with my old grade sheets and look them up, trying to put a face with a name. I look to see what grade I gave them (which varies a good bit). Something happened there years ago, though neither the student nor I probably knew it at the time. To realize it required a long season.
Moments of experience are not the same thing as a connected argument, a fact cru-cial to keep in mind in the classroom. And moments of experience are not the same thing as a long season of life, which confronts us not so much with prompts as with recurring themes and hard questions.
Back in 1975, Indiana University’s basketball team finished its regular season undefeated. In the last week of the season, however, Scott May—probably their best player—broke his arm. He came back to play in the NCAA tourney but did not play especially well in a regional final game that Indiana lost to Kentucky. The next season May had his shining moment. Indiana again went undefeated in the regular season and, this time, sailed through the tourney, win-ning it handily.
Perhaps, though, 1975 came closer to revealing the truth about life—that it is a long season, and that often we must find out what we can do with what we still have left. That requires attention to excellence and a willingness to be shaped and disciplined by the strenuous requirements of the task at hand. For life is not a tournament. Its race is not always to the swift nor its battle to the strong. What counts is enduring to the end.
Gilbert Meilaender is the 2010–11 Remick Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.