Let the Games Begin! “The Man in the Arena”–Reflections on Engagement and Attitude to Open the School Year

Opening of Year Talk to Faculty and Staff—August, 2013

On April 23, 1910, Theodore Roosevelt gave a speech entitled “Citizenship in A Republic” at the Sorbonne. The Sorbonne is the name for a collection of Universities in Paris that function together and it is one of the most prestigious and oldest learning establishments in Europe—John DeMatha taught there for many years before he became a priest and founded the Trinitarians.

Roosevelt had been out office for about 14 months at the time of the speech and he had spent much of that time traveling through east and central Africa for the Smithsonian among other endeavors: he and his party eventually brought back or shipped back 11,400 specimens.
Part of his speech that day sounds like a challenge from a man who had been on safari. Consider the following:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

The speech is popularly known as the “Man in the Arena” and I have always liked that particular quotation—its depiction of striving valiantly, bouncing back from failure, daring to try great things—those are all things to which I aspire. It conveys a kind of physicality that gives one the same reaction we have when we see the good guy take down the bad guy in a movie or TV show. I have little patience for the “talking heads” of either the political or athletic stripe—those who criticize every decision made by coaches, players, politicians, etc. without ever having tried to lead a group; without ever risking anything and who—even if they are spectacularly wrong—face no consequences.

A small voice does whisper to me that with the exception of the phrase that the person is spending oneself “in a worthy cause” that the rest of the quotation is value neutral. By this I mean that the pursuit of money or glory or power would fit—and even these could be seen by some (or even many) as “worthy causes.” So an inside trader might see himself as the man in the arena, justifying his actions through his great devotion to money as his worthy cause. Another small voice whispers to me that Roosevelt’s emphasis on the physicality of the struggle diminishes an appreciation for the life of the mind. What if physical pleasure were the man in the arena’s “worthy cause”? We specifically want our students (and alums) to be Gentlemen and Scholars. From one point of view it seems that Roosevelt is eliminating the Scholar from the arena and perhaps suggesting—much like the Social Darwinists of then and now—that the “arena” has no moral dimensions. The good is in the survival or conquest.

I am also conscious of the place where Roosevelt gave the speech—a famous University filled with “critics.” Well, I too am a “critic”—I spend my scholarly life in reading texts and writing about them. I spend my pedagogical life working with ideas and students and judging or “criticizing” both. I certainly watch sports and I have judged athletes to have made mistakes. How do I square these parts of my life with the man in the arena? Can I judge no novel because I haven’t published one? How deep into the arena must one go before you earn the right to make a judgment? Can a 2nd baseman not judge a pitcher because he never pitched? Do our opinions count only if we have been in some specific arena? At some point of absurdity we could make no judgments at all because we have never actually been that other person and had his or her identical experiences—and surely Roosevelt didn’t mean that. One might also point out that perhaps the person in the arena is not able to explain what she is doing—should someone who explicates the struggles of the warrior be grouped with the “timid souls” who know neither victory nor defeat?

Perhaps my conception of Roosevelt’s arena isn’t large enough. I think that my work as a teacher (or critic and reviewer)—places me in an arena—an arena where ideas are debated and one’s capacity is enlarged. Can the intellectual world and the moral world be arenas where we strive valiantly? Could Roosevelt be using the physical as a metaphor for the intellectual and moral? While my struggle with a novel, a movie, or a class only metaphorically marks me with blood and dust, I am, nonetheless, striving for truth, to achieve excellence in scholarship and teaching. I believe, actually I know, that I am working in the service of a worthy cause and I do know the great enthusiasms and great devotions—and I know well the mistakes I have made and the wrong turns that I have taken and I know too (however belatedly) my indebtedness to those who showed me my mistakes. I suspect that Roosevelt was speaking metaphorically; he was trying to encourage us to a life of action—even intellectual and moral action.

What is the proper attitude of the intellectual in that arena? As it happens, Roosevelt addressed this question later in the same speech:

Let the man of learning, the man of lettered leisure, beware of that … cheap temptation to pose to himself and to others as a cynic, as the man who has outgrown emotions and beliefs, the man to whom good and evil are as one. The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer. There are many men who feel a kind of twisted pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. There is no more unhealthy being, no man less worthy of respect, than he who either really holds, or [pretends] to hold, an attitude of sneering disbelief toward all that is great and lofty, whether in achievement or in that noble effort which, even if it fails, comes second to achievement. A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticise work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness… – all these are marks, not…of superiority, but of weakness.

In the first quotation it is primarily the lack of engagement that is criticized, the timid soul who is not in the arena—but here Roosevelt goes farther and attacks the attitude that feigns engagement, that uses the arena of the intellect to practice cynical observation, sneering disbelief—whose learning is put to service in looking down upon others. I love Roosevelt’s emphasis on the inauthenticity of the particular kind of critic who yields to “the cheap temptation to pose,” to be a “cynic,” to face life “with a sneer,” to convince oneself that there is no good or evil, to show a “twisted pride” or to “sneer” at what is great and lofty, to adopt an “intellectual aloofness.” Roosevelt knows profoundly that when you truly engage, when you “stand with” others and compete in the arena that only then will you appreciate the good, the true, the beautiful because you will have purchased that appreciation with the coin of yourself. It is that investment—the investment of self—that Roosevelt is after. The first quotation is truly not complete without this second quotation which rounds it out for us.

I want to be the person in the arena—I want all of you to be people in the arena—I want all of our students to be people in the arena. I want us in every arena that matters—the intellectual arena, the moral arena, the spiritual arena, the arts arena, the social justice arena, the athletic arena, and every other worthy arena. But, I only want this for all of us if we adopt the attitude Roosevelt describes here. I don’t want—and we shouldn’t tolerate in ourselves or anyone else—the pose of the cynic, the one who has outgrown emotion and belief, the one refuses to distinguish between good and evil, the one who is ready to criticize what one never tries to perform, the one who wants recognition for his accomplishments in his arena but denigrates or ignores the accomplishments of others.

Our striving for greatness must be informed by a reason larger than ourselves—otherwise what we really want is to be famous—and what we should want is to be heroic. The precondition to be a hero is to serve a cause larger than ones self—and after the heroic quest has been accomplished there is a requirement to return with gifts for those who did not go; you may journey by yourself but in the end you have journeyed for others.

I love the following observation by William Damon—then at Brown, now at Stanford:

Teachers can never be replaced, not by books, not by new buildings, not even by the advances in technology that seem to promise final answers every few years. In the end, if children are to acquire competence and character, they need to have sustained relationships with people who care about their intellectual and moral growth. Any improvement in our schools must begin by making sure that these kinds of relationships are available to all students. (Greater Expectations)

I will say again, our students “need sustained relationships with people who care about their intellectual and moral growth.” The toughest arena of all may be the one where we develop relationships with teen agers. But that is what we are called to do—to be in the arena where we stand with others. I read once that the three hardest things to do are not physical or intellectual—they are moral. Those things are: 1) return love for hate; 2) include the excluded; and 3) to say you are sorry. You cannot only be interested in a student’s intellectual growth lest he become the mere critic or the man who pursues only his own good—defining that as his “worthy cause.” You cannot, because of your profession, be interested only in a student’s moral development—unless you give him intellectual grounding and a model of how to think you are more likely to create in him a robotic obedience that is anathema to true education.

I intend to ask the students to be “people in the arena” and I intend to tell them that they will find us with them also. We’ll be the people who “stand with” them. Open wide the arena; let the games begin.



Filed under books and learning, education, Man in the Arena, pedagogy, teaching, Theodore Roosevelt, Uncategorized

5 responses to “Let the Games Begin! “The Man in the Arena”–Reflections on Engagement and Attitude to Open the School Year

  1. Beautiful piece, Dan!. You are most absolutely a man in the arena. MY best to you as you begin another season.

  2. stephenrsanchez

    Dan, I’m so glad for your blog. I often miss the collegial environment you fostered, and I especially miss stopping by your office and thinking things through with you.

  3. Randy Alton

    As a fellow professional in another local school system…well said!

  4. Karen Johnson

    Very moving words. I just travelled through the Panama Canal and learned of Pres. Roosevelt’s perseverance and the massive task of building it.
    We need leadership like that today. Perhaps DeMatha will produce those leaders who will save our country.

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