Should Yale (and Other Elite Colleges) Require Students Take a Kobayashi Maru Test?

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When it comes to “The Game,” precedent has no say. The annual Yale-Harvard ritual evokes a rivalry that transcends the ages, as well as the win-loss record of the season’s previous games. So it was in 1979 when the heavily favored undefeated Yale Bulldogs fell to the Harvard Crimson in the season’s ultimate game by the score of 22-7.

Even the final score means nothing. In 1968, when Harvard scored 16 points in the final 42 seconds to earn a tie, the Harvard Crimson headline read: “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.”

This year, the 136th edition of The Game was much anticipated. ESPN had it moved up an hour to a noon start since the Yale Bowl has no lights. Yale, with a record of 8-1, scoring an average of 37.4 points-per-game and fighting for the Ivy League title, was the odds-on favorite to defeat Harvard, losers of four straight. Was anyone surprised, then, that the first half ended with Harvard beating the Bulldogs by a solid 15-3 margin?

The halftime show changed everything.

After both bands cleared the field and as the annual George H. W. Bush honorees were being announced, several commonly dressed individuals walked assertively into the center of the field from each of the four corners.

At first, they looked to be part of the ceremony. Then it appeared they were nothing more than merry pranksters. After all, The Game has been the venue of many a delightful and memorable MIT stunt. Within minutes, though, it became apparent what it really was.

It was a throwback. An archaic expression reminiscent of a scene from Scott Johnston’s popular book Campusland (think Animal House meets 1984). Not to be outdone, Yale officials decided to channel their inner Doonesbury (think M*A*S*H the movie meets M*A*S*H the TV series).

It was a surreal juxtaposition.

And that made Yale President Peter Salovey’s words from just a few days earlier all the more relevant…

On the morning of the preceding Thursday, the President’s face strained as he searched for precisely the most perfect phrase. His initial question to the Dean’s Panel on Leadership would not only launch the inaugural session of Yale’s annual Alumni Assembly & Convocation, but set the tone for the entire weekend.

“Are our students resilient?” he asked before immediately apologizing for the implied generalization. Salovey, who earned his Ph.D. in Psychology from Yale in 1986, then posed a contrapositive as way of explanation.

“Earlier in this football season, we all learned the power of resiliency when the Bulldogs, down by two touchdowns late in the game against Richmond, rallied to score twice in the final 90 seconds to win 28-27,” said the University President.

He then lamented that, in accepting the best of the best, perhaps Yale students lack one important trait: failure. For it is only by failing that we learn to cope with failure, learn to build resiliency and, ultimately, learn to build character vital to supporting and leading a sustainable community.

Buffalo Bills Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy, a Harvard grad, said it more succinctly: “Football doesn’t build character. It reveals character.” Then again, Levy studied English, not psychology, so he tends to be more certain of his words.

Indeed, it was Levy’s team that has forever defined resiliency. The 1990-1993 Buffalo Bills are the only NFL team to go to four straight Super Bowls. That’s not what made them resilient. What made them resilient is that they lost every one of those Super Bowls. Failure did not dissuade them. It inspired them.

Was that the resiliency Salovey was referring to? Perhaps. For it was universally agreed on by the panel of distinguished Yale deans that the fields of sport offer the best environment to teach resiliency, to teach young adults that failure is a necessary part of growth, instrumental to both life and learning. You can scoff off a poor grade since few if any see it, but to fail in the public arena, now that’s real failure.

Upon hearing Salovey suggest incoming students lack a portfolio of failure, you might immediately conclude, “Well, why not just change the admissions standards and accept more students with a demonstrable record of failures?”

Aye, there’s the rub. For, wouldn’t the more creative students find a loophole to this requirement? In doing so, they could paint a picture of a personal Thermopylae they had to suffer (before, of course, their ultimate grand victory over the more powerful Persians).

Yes, adding a “Describe your most horrific failure (in no more than 250 words)” essay question to the application would only yield innumerable “how I turned lemons into lemonade” stories.

It’s just like when you’re in a job interview and you’re asked to name your greatest weakness. Out comes things like “I’m too friendly,” or “I’m too loyal” or “I tend to work more than most.”

Every weakness is a strength. Every failure is a success.

The answer, therefore, is not to change the application process, but to change the student experience. Make failure a graduation requirement.

That doesn’t quite get to the heart of the quest for resiliency to which Salovey alludes. You don’t want mere failure. You want failure that challenges the nature of the student and, in its course, improves that student’s character. In other words, Yale should require every student take a Kobayashi Maru test.

For those less familiar with Star Trek, the Kobayashi Maru test represents a no-win situation every cadet must endure before graduating from Star Fleet Academy. The purpose of this test is to ensure a potential captain – a potential leader – will remain calm even as the ship is disintegrating and death looms certain.

Why is this critical to leadership? Because, no matter how bad the circumstances, how impossible the odds, there’s still a chance. Without calm and deliberate (you might even say dispassionate) leadership, however, that chance will be forfeited…

And “forfeit” was what was on of minds of the more enlightened spectators in attendance at the Yale Bowl on Saturday, November 23, 2019.

Not at first. As the half-time sit-in began, the first impression from most of the crowd was a wry “isn’t that cute” smile. The loud speakers continued to play the usual festive football music, as if to reinforce the point this was all part of the show.

The antic no doubt brought back nostalgic memories for many an alum, whether it be the Vietnam War sit-ins, the Black Panther demonstrations or the anti-Apartheid protests. “Ah, glory be the age of youth, when we were indestructible.”

Not that all those sitting at midfield were students. Officially, the event was staged by students from Harvard and Yale, but alumni and other onlookers took part.

After several minutes, though, those smiles turned to anxious frowns. The music went silent. The teams broke from their second-half warm-up routines and decided to surrender the field by going back into their respective locker rooms.

Meanwhile, not only was campus security not doing anything to remove the disruptors, but the yellow vested authority allowed crowds to rush the field to join the squatters. Rather than politely ending, the situation was broadly escalating.

It was now a mob. Reasonable people thought the better of it and left. That would count as the second worst decision made by people that day.

Soon a voice, in regular intervals, began announcing with all the dry emotion of a NASA launch commentator, “Out of respect for both teams, please return to your seats.”

As if to emphasize insolence, the trespassers shouted back, “OK, Boomer!”

To which, the Boomers in the stands, striving to capture the obvious humor, rejoined, “Get off my lawn!”

But humor could not win on this day. Anger rose victorious. With irony coming in a close second.

You see, many in attendance likely would have been sympathetic to the various causes promoted by the demonstrators. Indeed, had they chosen the tailgates in the parking lot to make their statement, they would have been more fondly received.

But right there, right at that time, with sunlight fading and their recalcitrance laid bare, each passing minute eroded the sympathy of the crowd. It was becoming quite real that, should Yale officials fail to coax them to leave the field, the Bulldogs would have to forfeit the game and any hopes of winning the Ivy League Championship.

Whatever their causes, these protesters would have only succeeded in destroying a lifetime of dreams and hopes of the dozens of young men who had worked so hard to get where they were right then and right there.

Most of the crowd did not feel comfortable being forced to be co-conspirators in such a travesty.

The “Emperor Has No Clothes” moment for the SJW movement?

That realization may have been understood far beyond New Haven. Barstool Sports tweeted: “Yale-Harvard is under delay because of a student protest. We’ve hit peak 2019.” For Boomers, this is Millennial-speak meaning “SJW has Jumped the Shark.” Hence, irony.

Finally, after some 45 minutes, the yellow vests, having doubled with reinforcements, surrounded the agitants. Those mercurial participants – the casual pranksters – fled as quickly as they had arrived. The stalwart originals – the true protesters – remained seated on the artificial turf. Eventually, security led them away. In all 42 were arrested, including Hollywood actor and Yale graduate Sam Waterson.

To extend on Salovey’s thoughts, when one hasn’t experienced failure, one begins to develop a sense of entitlement. It’s an “I’m always right” kind of attitude. It leads to an utter lack of respect for others.

This is not resilience. It’s rudeness.

The Yale football team hammered home the point. Down by two touchdowns with less than a minute-and-a-half to go in the game, the Bulldogs could have simply blamed their fate on the protesters. That’s not resilience. Resilience doesn’t mean saying you’re a winner. Resilience means going out there, fighting through inevitable failure, and winning despite the odds.

Calm, cool, behaving as if they’d been there before (remember Richmond), Yale did score two touchdowns to tie the game in its waning seconds. This, though, would be no repeat of 1968. With Dartmouth winning, a Yale tie would mean losing the Ivy League Championship.

Yale had to win. But they were fighting two foes – man, in the form of a determined Harvard team intent on demonstrating its own resilience (as it had done so many times before); and nature, in the form of the fast approaching darkness (courtesy of the one-hour delay due to a pleasant prank turned seriously wrong).

Under gloom of night, the Sons (& Daughters) of Eli rush the field to celebrate their resilient champions.

History has now forever etched on this day a new classic tale. It’s a tale of two eternal rivals, a tale of shared resiliency and, ultimately, a never-ending tale that, though Harvard’s team had fought to the end, Yale did win (in the second overtime on the cusp of day descending into night).

The difference between civil disobedience and civil disruption is the difference between oratory and anarchy. President Salovey grasps the wisdom of this distinction, but is constrained to straddle the fine line between the two opposing extremes. The Game, however, may have provided an opportunity for all to see precisely what he means.

The gridiron men of Yale have now twice passed the Kobayashi Maru test, the comeback against Harvard being the most lasting and significant. Would that those who made the choice to jeopardize this have a real opportunity to enjoy discovering their own Kobayashi Maru test.

Why I’m Thankful for The Sandlot

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Take a step out into the fall air. There’s a faint rustle in the stillness. Falling leaves flutter to the Earth’s floor. Their slow decomposition releases an arousing aroma. It’s the smell of autumn. It’s the smell of coming things. It’s the smell of football.

There comes a time in the late school day afternoon, when the homework is finished, that the smell beckons. When this siren calls, the boys come out.

Or at least they used to. There was once an age, well before organized youth sports, when neighborhood boys would regularly convene. Together, they would decide the game, the boundaries, and the rules. Then they’d play. Sometimes deep into the darkness. The score never mattered. The camaraderie did.Continue Reading “Why I’m Thankful for The Sandlot”

Playing Through the Pain

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Warning: Parents, doctors, and youth sports administrators may find the following quite disturbing.

It’s a classic “guy” thing. Playing through the pain. It’s also a throwback thing. It harkens to an era when (especially football) coaches would admonish you for dogging it on account of a presumed injury. These coaches themselves reflect an even earlier epoch, one where boot camp drill sergeants berated new recruits, pushing them up to and then beyond their physical limits.

We can’t do that anymore. We now live in a sissified society, constrained by both the very real fear of catastrophic liability claims and an unnatural craze that decries all things alpha male. There was once a time – from our Continue Reading “Playing Through the Pain”

The Annual Thanksgiving Mudbowl

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mudbowl-1434436-1598x1062Bring an old weathered football up to your nose, close your eyes, and take a good whiff. Can you smell it? Do images of sweaty muddied gruff men, caked with sweat and blood, move in slow motion within your brain? Do your muscles tighten in pleasant anticipation at the thought of the gridiron? If so, then congratulations. You are part of a dying breed, a member of a secret society that long ago closed its doors to new applicants.

Well, not exactly. Those doors  remain open today and they will forever stay open. It’s just that, in an era of prefabricated microwave cooking, no one wants to go through the Continue Reading “The Annual Thanksgiving Mudbowl”

Soaring With The Eagle… and Beyond

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Sam Carosa - IMG_7127-300x395It snows a lot in the towns south of Buffalo. That’s why they call them the snow belts. So when a young dad wants to teach his two small sons the fundamentals of football, he only has one option: The finished basement of the raised ranch home he built for his family.

That young dad was my father, and those two young sons were the six and seven year-old version of my brother and me. There we were, in our bare feet (lest we slip on the linoleum tiles), running and defending simple pass patterns drawn by our father on the cold basement floor. We’d take turns. One series of plays I was the receiver and Kenny was the defender. The next series of plays Kenny was the receiver and I was the defender. We could barely catch the oversized ball, let alone comprehend the intricacies of basic square outs, buttons, and hooks.

Yet we persevered. Such was our enthusiasm to play the sport that no amount of failure could discourage us. More important, though, were those reassuring words I remember my Continue Reading “Soaring With The Eagle… and Beyond”

Penalize Colorado! Ethics Begins on the Football Field

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[This Commentary originally appeared in the October 18, 1990 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]

CarosaCommentaryNewLogo_259Sure I wanted Notre Dame to score on that last second touchdown pass. Just like a lot of other people, I was disappointed when the receiver dropped the ball. Yet, something else occurred on that particular Saturday which upset me even more.

College football bashing seems to be a regular event among the more erudite columnists. Many people complain the big money business of NCAA football runs counter to the spirit of the educational university. Certainly, we can’t encourage putting bucks ahead of books. But a solid education must Continue Reading “Penalize Colorado! Ethics Begins on the Football Field”

Double Sessions

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[This Commentary originally appeared in the August 23, 1990 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]

CarosaCommentaryNewLogo_259The early mornings of late August forebode the coming end of summer. A slight chill remains above the heavy wet grass until the sun gets high enough to melt the dew. Take a deep breath and you will notice the smell of the season has changed. The dry dustiness has been replaced by a soft gentle odor reminiscent of spring.

Late August mornings encourage us to Continue Reading “Double Sessions”

Some Silly Thoughts…

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[This Commentary originally appeared in the April 12, 1990 issue of The Mendon-Honeoye Falls-Lima Sentinel.]

 

CarosaCommentaryNewLogo_259Yes, I’ve lived in Western New York all my life, but the crazy April snowstorms we get still strike me as silly. “April showers bring May flowers.” I can’t recall any lyrics dealing with April snowstorms.

Once silliness infiltrates my mind, it doesn’t require a whole lot of effort for other absurdities to encroach upon the various unemployed synapses and neurons. For material, one merely needs to review current events…  Continue Reading “Some Silly Thoughts…”

The Greatest Game Ever… So Far!

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The game has come to define my life. You won’t find my name in any record books or even on many rosters, but the game flows through my very blood. Indeed, the Peter_Sports_Cover_300fact I don’t appear within any organized log tells you most of the story. But this, this is a different story.

Gary Trudeau once said we have become a nation of play-by-play announcers. We see life as a narrated live action event. It therefore doesn’t help things that, among the many paths I’ve taken, includes that of actually serving as a play-by-play announcer. But, rather than dwelling on a “voice of God” describing the action, what stands out in my memory remains the visions of modest, yet self-satisfying, glory. Picture not the booming baritone of NFL Films, but the dramatic slow-motion dénouement of a Hollywood picture.

It’s the littlest things I remember: The enormous body floating silently above me that Continue Reading “The Greatest Game Ever… So Far!”

“Hey! You’re Not Supposed to Do That!”

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Screamed the older woman to the group of middle schoolers playing football in the middle of the astroturfed field house. The field house was the University of 585059_95438463_Robot_Football_stock_xchng_royalty_free_300Rochester’s Goergen Athletic Center. The tweens – both boys and girls – were members of various Lego robotics teams. The woman was a coach for one of the teams. Apparently, her concern involved something about the potential of a football crashing into someone’s fragile plastic robot – a potential never realized despite the footballers ignoring her plea.

But, think about the setting before you off-handedly flip the page.

Earlier in the day, at the morning coaches meeting, one of the coaches labeled the Continue Reading ““Hey! You’re Not Supposed to Do That!””