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The Playing Fields of Eton

Equality and Excellence in Modern Meritocracy

Mika LaVaque-Manty

Publication Year: 2009

A very insightful and clearly written philosophical inquiry into the nature of sport. ---Marion Smiley, Brandeis University Can equality and excellence coexist? If we assert that no person stands above the rest, can we encourage and acknowledge athletic, artistic, and intellectual achievements? Perhaps equality should merely mean equality of opportunity. But then how can society reconcile inherent differences between men and women, the strong and the weak, the able-bodied and the disabled? In The Playing Fields of Eton, Mika LaVaque-Manty addresses questions which have troubled philosophers, reformers, and thoughtful citizens for more than two centuries. Drawing examples from the 18th century debate over dueling as a gentleman's prerogative to recent controversies over athletes' use of performance enhancing drugs, LaVaque-Manty shows that societies have repeatedly redefined equality and excellence. One constant, however, remains: sports provide an arena for working out tensions between these two ideals. He concludes that, just as in sports where athletes are sorted by age, sex, and professional status, in modern democratic society excellence has meaning only in the context of comparison among individuals who are, theoretically, equals. LaVaque-Manty's argument will engage philosophers, yet his inviting prose style and use of familiar illustrations will welcome non-philosophers to join the conversation. Mika LaVaque-Manty is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan.

Published by: University of Michigan Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

This book is about tensions between equality and excellence that have arisen in Western culture since the eighteenth century. Meritocracy—the idea that careers are open to talent, that the best man wins the game, that the race is to the swift—is one of the most important modern ideas invoked to solve these tensions. It does so in principle, but ...

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Introduction: The Indispensable Fictions of Equality and Excellence

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pp. 1-22

This book explores a tension between two values, equality and excellence. Does a fundamental conflict exist between those values? Perhaps the more equal we become, the more we dumb down our hopes of real excellence. Or is it the other way round? Someone can be excellent only in comparison ...

Part One

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pp. 23-24

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One - Kids and K

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pp. 25-50

Most citizens of modern liberal democracies endorse equality of opportunity as a fundamental political value. Many people don’t think that it is enough—for them, equality demands more than opportunities—and others aren’t quite sure what exactly equality means or requires, and for ...

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Two - Dueling for Equality: The Master’s Tools Will Take Down the Master’s House

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pp. 51-76

Meanwhile, back on the ranch, you can’t always wait till the cows come home: Whatever hopes for the future educational reforms carried, they involved a definite delay. Also, the reformers focused on the first part of the autonomy/dignity equation. The question of a person’s ...

Part Two

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pp. 77-78

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Three - Mens Sana, the Playing Fields of Eton, and Other Clich

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pp. 79-105

In chapter 1, I mentioned Immanuel Kant’s injunction that bodily cultivation—“gymnastics in the strict sense”—is a moral duty. There are good reasons not to be surprised about this. A central piece of Kant’s moral, social, and political philosophy holds that humans are unavoidably ...

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Four - Physical Culture for the Masses

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pp. 106-128

This chapter takes us into the twentieth century, but it begins in the world of the previous one. The puzzle here is why newly emerging working-class political organizations seemed so interested in sports. The answer is that they saw sports as thoroughly political and some- thing they might be able to use for their political goals. Mass sports and mass politics developed roughly simultaneously ...

Part Three

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pp. 129-130

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Five - Being a Woman and Other Disabilities

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pp. 131-152

In figure 3, a photo from a University of Michigan basketball game in around 1910, you don’t see any spectators. Perhaps it’s no surprise: even today, a good many intramural college games take place with no spectators. In fact, even women’s varsity sports tend to get very few ...

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Six - The Political Theory of Doping

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pp. 153-184

Doping scandals are something you might encounter on tabloid covers in the grocery store checkout line: they are melodramatic, delightfully sordid stories about the moral foibles of people whom society worships a bit too much for its own good. There is the melodrama about sprinters Tim Montgomery and Marion Jones, the former royal...

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Conclusion: “An Old Question Raised Again: Is the Human Race Constantly Progressing?”

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pp. 185-194

This book explores the political tension between equality and excellence in modernity.1 Its conclusions are necessarily contingent. Despite the historical survey, the book is animated by an interest in con-temporary controversies over equality and excellence—by ongoing debates about affirmative action, for example, and more broadly by ...


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pp. 195-210


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pp. 211-226


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pp. 227-233

E-ISBN-13: 9780472022076
E-ISBN-10: 0472022075
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472116850
Print-ISBN-10: 0472116851

Page Count: 248
Illustrations: 2 Figures
Publication Year: 2009