Baseball and Higher Education: Thoughts from HOF Weekend

Over this past weekend, I attended the Induction Ceremony for the Baseball Hall of Fame Class of 2014. As a lifelong Atlanta Braves fan, it was a real treat. Three Braves went into the Hall from the great teams in the 1990’s that won so many games. The combination of baseball and history struck me. I thought about how few industries are so heavily influenced by tradition, culture, and history. One of the great things about higher education is that we, like baseball, are an industry filled with the same affinity for the past.

One of the reason that I enjoy teaching the History of Higher Education course is that history influences so much of the way colleges and university exist today.

In Cooperstown, I saw many similarities between the history of baseball and the history of American higher education.

Race, Class, and Gender

Baseball is the American pastime, but that also means that the sport has had to deal with questions of race, class, and gender. The Hall of Fame and Museum showed these challenges vividly.

The exhibit on Hank Aaron was moving about how a poor black kid from Alabama could grow up into the Home Run King. The rise of Latino players in more recent years showed the changing demographics of our country. A special exhibit on Women in Baseball illustrated the role (often a limited one) in the history of the sport.

Higher education has followed many of the same trends in dealing with race, class, and gender issues. For example, changing student populations throughout our history has forced a reevaluation of the curriculum, pedagogy, and student services.

The More Things Change…

When you walk through the Baseball Museum, you’re struck with two competing thoughts.

Wow, how did they ever catch the ball with gloves like that? How did they play in those heavy wool uniforms? This looks nothing like it does today.

While at the same time, wow, look how that bat looks exactly like today. Those pictures of Wrigley Field are almost exactly how it looks today. It is mind boggling how the sport has changed so little in over 100 years.

We can say the same thing about colleges and universities– many of which predate the advent of baseball.

The work of teaching, research, and service remains largely the same as 100 years ago. Sure, the classroom looks a bit different and technology is so much different. But at the end of the day, the work that we do on campus resembles that of past generations.

Celebrate Our History

And this brings me to my final realization. Baseball celebrates the past.

More than 40,000 people flocked to a little town in New York to join in the celebration of baseball’s past. One of the reasons that I believe we do this is that so much of the game remains the same.

My grandfather loved baseball. He knew so many of the old timers and enjoyed listening to games on the radio. The game that he loved as a boy is the same that my son (and daughter!) can now grow up to enjoy.

This isn’t a weakness, but rather a strength.

Baseball doesn’t lament the fact that it hasn’t changed. It is considered one of the best aspects of the game.

It is how we can compare the greatness of pitchers inducted today to those of prior generations.

How often when talking about higher education do we celebrate our history rather than lamenting how we haven’t changed?

This may be my greatest irritation with the MOOC and disruption advocates. Are there things that can be taken from MOOCs to improve higher ed? Of course. Is this the end of higher education as we know it? Of course not.

Failing to change isn’t the same thing as failure.

Baseball and higher education have changed in many of the same ways over the past 100 years.

Why is one a cause for celebration and the other the reason for our impending doom?