NOTIONS: If you want to be your best, Easy Street’s a dead end

I’ve been driving around Indiana with my pal, the professor. For four consecutive Thursdays, we rendezvoused at dawn, grabbed cups of caffeine and headed to the northeast corner of the state to teach grant-writing.

Our students, desperately seeking funds for the not-for-profit organizations they lead, were eager to learn and engaged in our lesson.

The conversations en route were equally engrossing.

We talked about our families and their health, our kids and their activities. We covered politics, sports and our passion for clear communication.

But mostly, we discussed the state of higher education, the presumptions that many students bring to the classroom and the predicament those presumptions present-first for professors and, eventually, for prospective employers.

During one drive, the professor-who teaches journalism at a respected independent college-lamented the lack of interest in, and appreciation for, writing.

Many students, he said, seek journalism degrees because they want to design pretty pages with slick software. Or they want to take pictures and digitally doctor the images into cool shapes and colors.

As a result, the professor said, some of his students are offended and terrified when they learn that all journalism majors must pass a writing and editing proficiency exam.

“But I just want to do graphics,” some argue. “Why do I have to spell?”

On another drive, the professor said his school struggles to find young journalists willing to work on student publications. These innocents believe book learning will suffice and practical experience won’t matter. (As an employer of such talent, I can assure you that’s wrong.)

My wife, a veteran journalist, recently corresponded with one of her former professors on a related topic. When he retired following decades at a Michigan university, she asked why he’d opted to put down his red pen.

His response: He’d grown weary of students expecting media stardom without even consuming media. Too many of his students, he explained, wouldn’t read newspapers or newsmagazines on a regular basis, or even watch TV news programs-unless, of course, it was an assignment. He also said today’s students expected the top grades and plum assignments but didn’t want to work hard to prove themselves.

After hearing such professorial laments, I had to wonder where such arrogance originates. How can any of us hope to progress, posthaste, from middle-ofthe-pack to top-of-the heap, from just anybody to singular superstar, without mastering the fundamentals, doing the dirty work and amassing the knowledge born only of experience?

Then I watched the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball “team” get slaughtered by some no-names from Puerto Rico.

I’m sure LeBron James, a member of this so-called “dream team,” is a talented year-out-of-high-school basketball player. I’m sure he’d love to shoot the way he appears to in the cleverly crafted Power-Ade TV commercial that’s running during the games-one in which James knocks down four consecutive shots from nearly 90 feet.

But on the court in Athens, James and his young millionaire mates can’t hit the side of a proverbial Hoosier barn. They also can’t penetrate a zone defense or execute even the most rudimentary plays-not surprising, given the few practices that were possible within their packed promotional schedules.

In dissecting this disaster, sports columnists across America have singled out the player-selection process, the coaching, the lack of a three-point shooter and more.

I’d argue the problem is more systemic: Too many players, chasing dreams of glory and the almighty buck, forego too many years of college seasoning, tens of thousands of practice shots and scores of games with thousands of chances to construct and deconstruct offenses and defenses.

Instead, they rely on raw athleticism, hoping to pick up shooting skills, teamwork and analytical thinking along the way. A few do. Most don’t. Especially a year or two out of high school.

I’ve just finished reading “The Rule of Four,” a novel by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. It’s about four Princeton University seniors deciphering a mysterious rare book.

In the novel, the protagonist talks of a lesson his father taught him-one espoused by a Princeton basketball coach. “The strong take from the weak,” it says, “but the smart take from the strong.”

The focus in Athens this month is on athletic prowess. But hundreds of years before Christ, Greek intellectuals ruled the day.

It’s where Aristotle said, “Good habits formed at youth make all the difference.”

It’s where Plato said, “You know that the beginning is the most important part of any work, especially in the case of a young and tender thing; for that is the time at which the character is being framed.”

It’s where Euripides said, “Toil … is the sire of fame.”

Software won’t win the Pulitzer Prize.

Raw talent rarely tops teamwork and finesse.

Gold emerges not from razzle-dazzle, but from hard work, smart thinking and tireless experience.

Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to

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