What the Olympics teach us about the role of higher education

By Ronald R. Thomas

Seattle Times Editorial
Friday, February 17, 2006

After the torch at the 2004 Summer Olympics was extinguished, we learned that more than $1.2 billion was spent on security. This extraordinary expenditure — over four times the amount spent at any previous Olympics — came in the absence of any specific threat to attack the Games. The remarkable fact is not that we heard so much about security at the 2004 Olympics, but that we had not heard more about it before.

We were reminded of this imminent threat when Steven Spielberg's "Munich," dramatizing the aftermath of the infamous Games of 1972, was nominated recently for several Academy Awards.

As the torch for the Winter Olympics in Torino was lit last week, the Italian government had assembled an army of more than 10,000 police officers to patrol the site and is spending in excess of $100 million for security. The plan has called for a no-fly zone overhead as well as a brigade of more than 300 snowmobile police to keep a constant watch at the ski events alone.

We idealize the Olympics in their modern incarnation as being about brotherhood and pure competition. In reality, the Olympic Games have always been about politics and security, because they have, from the beginning, been about war.

In watching the Games on television — with the spectacle of death-defying feats on the ski slopes and political intrigue on the ice-skating rink — it is easy to forget that the Olympics were first and foremost about training for war. The ancient Greek Olympics took place during a time of truce declared specifically for the Games. The competitions were called "agons" (as in "agony") and they sometimes involved fights to the death. There was no second or third place in the Greek Olympics, no silver or bronze medals. This was, like war, winner take all.

For the athletes, participation in the Games was a sacred civic duty. To prepare, all young men were trained not just in the contest of the agon, but in the ways of Greek democracy. The ancient Olympic Games of Greece remind us of that connection between intellectual and physical excellence, but they provide another lesson, as well: True homeland security and a good education have a lot in common.

As with participation in the ancient Olympics, an education should be a social contract, a bond between the young scholar and the state, in which each has an obligation to the other. The ancient Olympics were preparation for war, and a modern education is the best strategy to avoid it.

America's claim to greatness in higher education has been built on two great democratic principles: choice and access. But while our choices — from independent colleges and universities to land-grant and public-research universities, community colleges, and technical and professional schools — are unparalleled, access is decreasing. As the costs of education have gone up, public support for education has gone down.

Congress (by a single vote) has cut $12.7 billion from the student-loan program to help balance a budget far out of balance due to expenditures in Iraq. As a result, finances will prevent many from attending colleges that would enable them to become the economic core of our society.

We are creating a two-tiered class society, and the gap between the two is growing vaster every year. This is nothing less than a national emergency and an international embarrassment.

As Franklin Roosevelt stated in his 1944 State of the Union address, the right to a good education is the ultimate civic duty the state owes the citizen and the citizen owes the state in ensuring freedom from fear and from want. Education should not be merely a means to a job credential, but a caldron for leadership, an asset through which we create intelligent citizens, test ideas, discover and expand knowledge, and critique, renew and transform our culture.

Which brings us back to the Olympics. Like the ancient Olympiad, higher education must be understood as a civic duty to the next generation. An uninformed and uneducated citizenry is a citizenry at risk, no matter how many intelligence czars we nominate, X-ray machines we place in airports, phone calls we tap, or homeland-security offices we set up in Washington, D.C.

A nation truly concerned with its own safety must invest in the future to ensure that choice and access remain the foundations of our educational superiority. Citius, altius, fortius: faster, higher, stronger. This is the Olympic motto, a motto of hope that calls for an ever-fuller commitment to strive for excellence — raising the bar, increasing our effort, improving our performance.

These must be our goals in the classroom and in the statehouse and in the halls of government, as well as on the ski slope and the skating rink. It is nothing less than our civic duty to our children, and the foundation of our national security.