Michigan is the College for Burke

During class on November 11th, we were asked to name examples of “pleasing illusions” that we all have. The term comes from Edward Burke’s defense of thinking of the king and queen of France as more than just regular people in his piece, Reflections on the Revolution in France. One of the responses that struck me as humorous was that we all still believe that, “Michigan is an awesome football team.”

It is difficult to imagine that anyone still believes that a 5-5 team can be considered “awesome” in any sense of the word, but with the history the program has, it is not difficult to imagine that people still think of Michigan football as elite. I started 800px-20090905_Michigan_Wolverines_offense_vs_Western_Michiganthinking about the year the team has had, and upon thinking back about something I saw at the Minnesota game, I had an interesting revelation.

The boo-birds were out in full force. All around me were screaming for the mediocre play to end. However, there was one fan a few rows in front of me who was advocating for something else. “STOP BOOING! THIS IS MICHIGAN,” he yelled until he was red in the face. I thought to myself, “it’s nice that he cares so much about the team, but when things are this bad, it’s hard to not boo.”

That fan would not let the tradition of Michigan be tainted by a few unhappy students. He longed for things to return to the way they once were, when Michigan wanted to keep the Michigan tradition of winning alive, much like Burke would’ve wanted. Then it hit me; if Burke was alive today, rather than during the French Revolution, and was a college student, he would be attending the University of Michigan.

We are at a school that prides itself on tradition, which Burke believes to be the best source of knowledge, more than anything else, and seeks to do things the way they have always been done. Here at Michigan, we talk about our illustrious tradition of excellence until it is nearly beaten into the ground.

If head football coach Brady Hoke were fired at the end of this season, Burke would undoubtedly be in favor of hiring a Jim_Harbaugh_at_2010_Stanford_football_open_house_2“Michigan Man” as his replacement. The term is applied to anyone that resembles the values of a respectable man that attended the university, so he would look to someone like Jim Harbaugh, a former quarterback for U-M, to be our new leader.

Only someone that knows about the true tradition of Michigan football would be suitable to lead our program back to its former level of prestige. When Burke explains that, “the science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a priori”, he means that something should not be done until you have experience in the matter.

This same logic can be applied to the construction of our football team; if we do not know how someone that has never been associated with the University will handle our famed prestige and tradition, we should not hire him in the first place, just as a new governmental system should not be installed because we don’t know how it will work. He would’ve scoffed at Pat Caputo’s suggestion in his Macomb Daily piece to “think outside the box when hiring a new coach”. For Burke, an outsider would be able to do next to nothing for our program, and only a traditional “Michigan Man” could help us.

It is dangerous that our football team has settled into an era of mediocrity, because once we start thinking of Michigan as an ordinary football program, we are destroying the image of the team, and “all the decent drapery of life [will] be rudely torn off,” just as it was in France when people thought that their rulers were no different than themselves. Right now, our team is just like any other, just as “a king is but a man,” but according to Burke, we need to act as if this is not the case to preserve the lore. When Adam Biggers of Bleacher Report broke down exactly why Michigan football is performing so poorly, Burke would’ve criticized him for trying to tear down the drapery that covers up the illusion that we are something far greater than we recently have been; he would do everything in his power to keep that drapery standing.

It would be much easier to accept our recent trend of losing, if we did not consider the schools that are now better than us to still be our inferiors. We hold an intense prejudice towards Ohio State and Michigan State, so when Denard Robinson said that he will always refer to Michigan State as our “little brother,” Burke would’ve applauded him for not letting their recent success overcome our history of dominance. Burke explains that, “instead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherishMike-Hart-vs-MSU them to a very considerable degree, … and the longer they have lasted, and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them.” Burke’s prejudice toward Ohio and our “little brother” would’ve never ended, regardless of their recent success.

We don’t usually boo our football team, because after all, this is Michigan. We look fondly upon our tradition, and do not let down times distort our image of the team. Burke would have appreciated our respect for tradition and unwillingness to move away from it. He would’ve dreaded the idea of Michigan being some ordinary program, and would’ve loved to hold onto his prejudices against our rival schools. His thoughts on the French Revolution closely resemble what is happening here on campus with our football team right now, and while the students of the University of Michigan are not going to overthrow the football team, Burke, like that fan at the Minnesota game, would’ve discouraged any criticism against it, or its tradition.

4 thoughts on “Michigan is the College for Burke

  1. I wan to start off and thank you for writing about this topic because this is an extremely hard time for Michigan athletics and especially, Michigan football. I do agree with all the talk about Brady Hoke and how Burke would agree with the hiring of a Michigan Man. If Hoke is fired at the end of the year, I do believe that the University of Michigan will do everything in its power to bring a Michigan Man back to lead the football team. Michigan football needs more than a Michigan Man to lead the team but they need a leader that will help change the culture of the program. Some of the players on the team do not even want to make a bowl game because they want the season to be over with. This is an extremely controversial topic and needs to be addressed. Some of the other comments do not agree with hiring a Michigan Man. Bo Schembechler is a Michigan Man and although he came from Ohio State he knew the rich tradition and what it takes to truly be a Michigan Man. I do not want to argue about what a Michigan man is or is not but I want to comment on the fact that this blog post is extremely needed and the way you relate the readings in class to this topic is great.


  2. I found your post really engaging and entertaining, and I totally agree with the sentiment that many “Burke-ian” ideas would be fitting in Michigan’s current football situation.
    I also think an interesting distinction can be made between using tradition as a means to affirm Michigan as opposed to using tradition as a way to better Michigan. For example, I think your experience with the man imploring people to stop booing simply because “This is Michigan” is an excellent example of a Burke-ian ideal, but it goes a step further to decide that, because of our traditional success (although we don’t currently employ much) we must stick to traditional Michigan hiring, coaching, and leading methods. I think this is where many people would call these types of thinkers ‘stubborn’.
    Your post, after reflection, has left me feeling kind of sad. How long will we be able to use “Well, this is Michigan” as a justifier, an excuse, or an accolade? If we continue down the road we are in football, we will lose one of our most prized achievements: The winningest program in college history. If we continue to lose things like this, what will it even mean to say “This is Michigan” anymore?
    Just something to think about.


  3. I agree with the majority of the ideas in this post. I think you accurately applied Burke’s beliefs to the current situation with Michigan football, but I would question whether or not these beliefs are practical. Burke’s approach is rather hard-headed and I seriously doubt that stubbornly sticking to tradition and refusing to acknowledge modern realities is the best way to go about rebuilding a struggling program, albeit one with a great history of excellence. Burke opposed the French Revolution, which many historians believe to be one of the great stepping-stones in the progress of democracy. Perhaps we need to adopt a more flexible approach in order to achieve success.


  4. Nice post. I think one interesting aspect that could potentially be debatable is if a Michigan man really has to have gone to Michigan in order to be considered for a job as a coach here. Bo Schembechler, someone who many consider to be the epitome of a Michigan man, was an assistant at Ohio State before he came here. I think Bo’s legacy is when the whole Michigan man idea really took off, so in that sense, Burke’s ideals would fall out of line if he were to be alive during the time Bo took over as head coach. I can’t find the article at the moment, but there was a really good piece by Bleacher report on why Michigan needs to abandon the whole “Michigan man” idea, or at least let it evolve, because that ideal that we hold is destroying our football program. When Hoke came in, he promised that we were going to be a smash mouthed, old school football team, but the problem with that “Michigan man” mindset is that the game has changed so much since the days of when Michigan football dominated with that style of play. Even current “smash mouth” football teams like Alabama play with a more modern “spread” style offense that Rich Rodriguez originally ran. So even though I agree with you that Burke probably would have been in favor of the traditional “Michigan man” way of doing things when it came to our football program, I don’t think the traditional way is how we are going to get any better.


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