This post, a follow up to my previous “opening remarks,” has been a long time coming, but I found myself thinking about the NCAA football championship game, and realized I had stumbled upon “Exhibit A.” Saying that I was thinking about the football game may be misleading: I didn’t know which teams were actually playing, or when the game was until I googled it a few days before it happened. Obviously, I am not really a football fan, but I am generally aware of my alma mater’s team (BYU), and I occasionally watch a game, but I usually stop caring about football when BYU is no longer playing, which tends to be rather early in the post-season schedule. Furthermore, I have never played organized football, but I do participate in “turkey bowls” and other recreational games, although I sometimes wish that we’d play soccer or ultimate frisbee instead.
Despite my lackluster interest and anemic emotional investment in football, I somehow know quite a lot about it. A few weeks ago, for example, I went to a friend’s house to watch a bowl game. When a yellow flag appeared near the line of scrimmage, I knew that it was probably a false start. I knew what might lead to a pass interference penalty. And I had opinions about what the team should do: stop trying to run it up the middle, risk the turnover on downs and go for the three yards instead of punting, and bench a particular player who seems to have forgotten how to tackle. As I gestured and shouted at the TV, I was struck by the absurdity of my behavior. I was suggesting that–with no real experience or training–I somehow had a better idea of the strategy my team should be pursuing than its coaches.
My deference toward the professional coaching staff soon morphed into amazement that I even had an opinion. Where did my ideas even come from? Nobody had ever taught me football strategy. I doubt that anybody had even taught me about the various penalties. Somehow, my limited experience with watching football games, hearing the announcers’ commentary, and listening to my friends’ game day discussions had coalesced into a surprisingly nuanced albeit amateur understanding of the game.
Because I study education, this fascinated me: The majority of educational research addresses in-school learning, which is intentionally orchestrated by a teacher (and often forced upon the students). That I had somehow organically learned about football without any pedagogical planning or intention was amazing. I said out loud, “I know about football. I really do.” My friend gave me a funny look. I decided to continue my thinking silently.
Our society teaches its members about football. For most, there is no formal instruction, just points of access all along a spectrum of expertise (from my “they really should stop trying to run it up the middle” to the ESPN analysts). Anybody who is interested can find statistics and commentary specific to their favorite team. Nationwide, high schools highlight their football team, undergraduates fill football stadiums, holiday celebrations include watching specific football games, and the NFL practically owns Monday night. There are respectable careers in playing, reporting, coaching, commentating, and analyzing football. Games are publicly televised and broadly publicized. There are bitter rivalries, hometown loyalties, and colorful celebrities–intrigue and interest enough to engage a population. People may choose to avoid football (and consequently avoid learning about it), but American society is structured to teach its members about the sport.
That may not be particularly interesting in and of itself, but it illustrates the educational power of society. Imagine what could happen if we created similar structures to organically educate people about something other (and more important) than football. I for one would trade my knowledge of football for a better understanding of the history of the Middle East. Could a society teach something along those lines as pervasively as we currently teach football?