On December 21, 1992, I wrote a letter to Bobby Knight, then coach of the Indiana University basketball team. I sent a similar letter on the same day to Dick Vitale, a basketball commentator for ESPN. My letters were responses to the duo’s public stance on the decision by Michigan player Chris Webber to leave college after his sophomore year to play for the National Basketball Association.
Knight and Vitale had publicly approved of Webber’s decision, saying that since college is about getting a job and Webber now had a job, he may as well abandon the campus for the professional ranks. My letter, predictably professorly, suggested that their definition of college was sadly thin. “The biggest problem that Chris Webber will face in coming years will have to do with his personal relationships and decisions, how to treat people, and how to live richly,” I said. Bobby Knight wrote me back to say that we would have to “agree to disagree.” Dick Vitale sent me a copy of his book. Webber was a first round draft choice. His current contract with the Sacramento Kings nets him 123 million dollars for seven years of basketball.
Nonetheless, it would seem that I had it mostly right, at least about the challenges ahead for Webber. His career has been fraught with misfortune and controversy. He has piled up a lot of money, no doubt, but he has also been suspended for lying to a grand jury, punished for violating the NBA’s substance abuse policy, and condemned by the ACLU for “hate crimes against women.” When we’ve read about Webber over the last decade or so, the subject has seldom been basketball.
I’m less sure now that I was right about what college could do for Webber. Now we know that he was taking money under the table as far back as high school. And many of his current troubles go back to payoffs received during those two years as a college player, payoffs totaling more than 100,000 dollars. The ethical road was already slippery, and those college classes he did take seem not to have helped much.
Nonetheless, I want to believe that some residue of that ancient, liberal-arts potion still drifts around in our notions of the value of education.
I realize that we have no guarantee that reading Homer, Shakespeare, and Kant; studying history, music, and art; and wading through philosophy, psychology, and mythology, will necessarily change anyone. After all, we have the example of the Nazi prison camp guards who listened to Mozart and read Goethe. We have no guarantee that books will lead to moral action. Do colleges and universities still require these courses in the human disciplines? Probably not. Not many of them, anyway. But the Chris Webber story reminds us that the stakes are high.
Perhaps current commentators are spot on when they adopt Knight and Vitale’s tired line to urge young Josh Smith, now finishing up at the Oak Hill Basketball Factory in Virginia, to jump straight to the NBA despite his commitment to Indiana University. One pundit announced on a national broadcast that only “purists” demur. I guess he means me when he speaks of those who call for “learning for learning’s sake.” What a silly and meaningless phrase.
I confess that I still want to believe in education. I concur with Robert Frost that learning our way around in metaphor, studying in the humanities and the rest, might actually lead to “a clarification of life.” It is learning for the sake of our own lives and the lives of others.
Chris Webber has made us reflect upon life without college; he also makes us think about colleges without life.