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Basketball, the Super Bowl and a liberal arts education

By John Syme

Posted: Tuesday, Feb. 07, 2012

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John Syme

John Syme graduated from Davidson College with a bachelor of arts degree in French in 1985. He worked as a general-assignment reporter at The Winston-Salem Journal, where he later wrote freelance travel stories during his first solo cross-country road trip in the summer of 1989. He worked as a copywriter at a Charlotte advertising agency, as a research translator at a French nutrition center outside Paris, and as a politics and education newspaper reporter in Charlotte. He returned in 2001 to Davidson, where he is senior writer, alumni editor and instigator of the "Road Trip 2009" blog, which evolved into his current blog, "Daybook Davidson."

While I was listening to Monday morning-after coverage of the Super Bowl, my non-jocky editor’s ear did a double take when Giants linebacker Chase Blackburn described his decisive interception at the start of the fourth quarter thusly: “I just tried to box him (Gronk) out and play basketball.”

Basketball? At the Super Bowl?

Yes, indeed, it turns out. And why not? Playing one game on the field by drawing on the tactics of another game in our heads is something we all do all the time, even if we don’t think about it as consciously as Blackburn.

Robert Fulghum put it another way in “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” his famous list of basic rules of the game expanded into a lifetime of lessons.

I’ve noticed that the principles of most games tend to be relatively few and simple. It’s the plays and players that are infinitely, exasperatingly, exhilaratingly complex.

Of course, now we’re way beyond just sports. Think about the “playing field” of today’s job markets.

I did, last night while reading That Used to Be Us by Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, a book I got for Christmas and highly recommend. In it, the authors examine types of work by broad category. The first category, “nonroutine high-skilled work,” fits perfectly with the liberal arts milieu in which I write, and so it, like Blackburn’s basketball reference, caught my ear.

“Nonroutine high-skilled work is generally the province of engineers, programmers, designers, financiers, senior executives, stock and bond traders, accountants, performers, athletes, scientists, doctors, lawyers, artists, authors, college professors, architects, contractors, chefs, specialized journalists, editors, sophisticated machine-tool operators, and innovators… the merger of globalization and the IT revolution has made those who do (these jobs) even more productive,” the authors write.

They go on to detail how this category of workers leverage globalization and IT to get ahead, by thinking critically and broadly and deeply, and then being able to apply more than one system of thought to a given problem.

Those abilities of thought and action are at the very heart of a solid liberal arts education.

Not to mention a good kindergarten.

Clearly, we’ll need more of both as globalization and IT, as Friedman has written, continue to “flatten” our world into a more level playing field among the people of every nation.

Play ball!

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