Coming back to Wesleyan after years in California, one of the most surprising aspects of the campus culture for me has been the wealth of athletic activities available — both formal and informal. Not only is the Freeman Athletic Center the class act of NESCAC, but all over the campus one can find students engaged in sports ranging from ultimate Frisbee to field hockey, from soccer to softball. In addition to the more than 700 varsity athletes, there are countless pick-up games or casual leagues. During the most recent glorious fall weekend, I was struck by the range of playful yet intense activities.
Football, men’s and women’s soccer, and field hockey were all involved in overtime matches on Saturday. We came out on the winning end in field hockey, and tied in men’s soccer, but in some ways the striving and focus the students exhibited were the most notable aspects of the contests. One sees the camaraderie and coordination of the players as they pull together (as I noted in the crew teams I saw at the Head of the Connecticut Regatta), and their shared jubilation or disappointment depending on the result. Whatever the outcome, the team regroups and begins work again, whether they had a big win (like women’s tennis) or a very frustrating loss (like football). The work — the practice and play — continues.
How is all this effort and competition, be it in intramural soccer or varsity cross-country, related to education? Recently I came upon a short piece on “The Active Life” by a beloved Wes faculty member and philosopher, Louis Mink. In a brochure on Liberal Education Louis wrote: “Sports provide the occasion for being intensely active at the height of one’s powers. The feeling of concentrated and coordinated exertion against opposing force is one of the primary ways in which we know what it is like to take charge of our own actions.” Louis went on to say that “liberal education is education in the mode of action. It is something one does, and learns to do, not something one gets, acquires, possesses, or consumes.” That sounds just right to me: liberal education, in contradistinction to training, has everything to do with learning to take charge of one’s life.
Our students are busy, talented people. Why do they take on more challenges in athletics, or for that matter in their studies, or in the arts? Louis Mink wrote about the “overpowering reward” of feeling one’s own self-directed action having results against real difficulties. We learn about our limits, and about how we sometimes can overcome them when we take on the mental, physical and social challenges of sports. Of course, we also experience the great pleasure of the active life, often in the good company of teammates or campus supporters.
I often talk about the exuberance of our Wesleyan community, and how much I value the affection and achievement that it creates. Athletics are a big part of that, and that’s why I am so happy to cheer on the Red and Black!