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Sunday, May 16, 2010

When does the pre-season end

I remember when my children were young and I had shared the job of driving hordes of them to various sporting activities (as well as my stints as coaching). I recall one day early in one particular soccer season when I was chauffeuring a carload full of ten year old boys, all playing on one particular team. Their season had not starting out very well and some of the boys were lamenting their situation. However, one of the boys astutely pointed out that the first few games really did not count. They were only part of the pre-season.

I was reminded of that episode frequently over the next decade as I watched my children and others navigate their adolescent and young adult years. I realized that the concept of the pre-season has relevance well beyond the realm of amateur and professional sport. However, unlike the realm of sport,  the transition from pre-season to regular season may not be so well defined.  Perhaps that is one of the reasons that we like the world of sport where the rules are so well defined.

In the realm of politics, the internet and archiving of virtually everything has rolled back where the pre-season begins. Elena Kagan's undergraduate thesis is making its rounds of the internet, being mentioned today on Greg Mankiw's blog. The original link to Princeton's distribution network has been inactivated, something I find rather curious (see below). From what I read, the content comes across as sympathetic to socialism but that was not the major theme. The major theme was consensus and unity is essential for success of the socialist movement, a lesson which Elena Kagan may have generalized beyond the left.

In reading excerpts from Elena Kagan's undergraduate thesis, I was brought back to listening to car full of 10 year old boys and the pre-season. When does the pre-season end in regards to public declarations of our beliefs regarding political, philosophical, and social positions?  Should we counsel young people to be careful regarding what they say and write because it might influence other's opinion of them 20, 30, or 40 years hence? I never gave a moments thought as an undergraduate student that anything I wrote for a course could be resurrected during my professional career and require any explanation. Should teachers who provide oversight to editors and writers of their high school papers caution their students that their positions might be second guessed 30 years hence?

The transition from childhood to post-pre-season adulthood now happens very abruptly. Just ask the parents or friends of an inexperienced high school student driver who wrecks their care and kills themselves and/or others. Just ask the sexually active teenager who contracts HIV and is committed to a lifetime of treatment.   This age is marked by impulsiveness and recklessness without the the understanding of the possible consequences. We can go from doing goofy and apparently harmless things in high school to the front page of the New York Times in the blink of an eye. Just ask the three members of the 2006 Duke Lacrosse team who were falsely accused of rape.

However, thinking and writing should be different. We do not want our young people to recklessly push the bounds of truly high risk activities. However, why should we make thinking, writing, and the exchange of ideas  into a high risk activity? Why should Princeton need to remove access to Elena Kagan's undergraduate thesis. Are the only pieces safe to post the ones which no one has any interest? What good are those ideas?

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