The P.E. Requirement Needs to Be Abolished Immediately

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

I was struggling to think of an appropriate topic for my inaugural column, and so I thought back to the first piece of advice I give any of the Gazette’s Opinions Columnists when they aren’t sure what to write about: “What is it that really pisses you off?” Seeing as I have nothing new to add about the historic Senate upset that has likely doomed the prospects of healthcare reform for another generation, I decided to focus on something a little closer to home. I’ll write about the uselessness of the gym requirement, the frustration it causes, and the justification for its immediate abolition.

When I first spoke to Mike Mullen, the extremely genial man who is the head of my gym class about the column idea, he grew, (as you might imagine) a little exasperated. “Doesn’t anything else make you angry?” he asked. (I’m paraphrasing.) “Did you see what just happened in Massachusetts? Healthcare reform has been doomed for another generation.”

Healthcare reform likely has been doomed for another generation, which is why it’s so important that we figure out the most effective way to keep the campus fit. The policy we have now isn’t it.

I find the P.E. requirements frustrating because I am kept very busy with my schoolwork, Gazette work, and like everyone else, plenty of other things, but have nonetheless managed to stay pretty fit. I run and lift regularly. I play a lot of tennis with friends. And yet, despite all this, Rachel Head continues to inform me that if I don’t enroll in some more P.E. classes fast, I’ll be lucky if I can find on-campus housing next semester.

Currently, every student has to take four half-semesters of gym credit, which totals up to one entire year enrolled in gym class. According to an email the student council circulated after meeting with the Athletic Department, the justification for the P.E requirement is as follows: 1) It helps keep students healthy and active. 2) Coach or faculty members ensure students are getting real workouts, and allow for instructors to suggest improvements and encourage progress. 3) These gym courses encourage students to “step out of their comfort zones” and try activities new to them.

Let’s deal with the first rationale first: Gym requirements help keep students healthy and active. Well, sometimes they do. Or students can enroll in ping-pong or bowling, and burn fewer calories than they would have if they’d spent the entire time munching on sticks of celery. As long as students can sign up for golf and lazily swat a ball into the distance for an hour, or go enroll in bowling and roll a ball into a bunch of pins twice a week, it’s hard to make the case that P.E. courses are really designed to keep you fit. You’d be much better off just going for a jog.

A similar logic applies for the second complaint, that coaches and faculty members ensure students are getting real workouts. Some of the students no doubt do get real workouts only because there are instructors present. Some students walk into the weight room not sure how to turn on the treadmill. For these people having instruction is great. But for those of us who, either because we participated in high school sports or consulted a fitness expert independently, already know how to effectively work out, the instructors aren’t particularly helpful. Obviously it’s helpful if you’re taking African Dance to have an instructor, but that fact hardly seems a justification for making me take P.E. classes.

Finally, the third and most ridiculous justification for the P.E. requirement: That it ensures that you explore different ways of getting fit. Well, there’s no distribution requirement, so if you want, you can take four classes of ping-pong. Or four classes of fitness training. Certainly, the fact that Akido and yoga are offered allows students to explore different methods of maintaining fitness. But the students who want to explore these different methods would be free to do so with or without the requirement, and the students who didn’t want to explore alternative methods aren’t required to even with the fitness requirement.

So I have a suggestion: Why not just establish a fitness test, and allow the people who pass it to continue whatever regimen is keeping them so fit? To ensure that these people continue working out, the fitness instructors can make sure they successfully complete the test every semester. The students who are not able to pass the test might be required to enroll in fitness courses, where they will receive their fitness instructor’s guidance and expertise.

This solution may seem so simple that you’ll wonder why it hasn’t already been implemented, especially when you consider the hundreds of colleges and universities that already have similar policies in place. The problem is that the Director of Physical Education is also the Director of the Athletics Department, meaning that the Director of the Athletics Department helps determine the fitness requirement, even though the Athletics Department is also where the coaches who teach the majority of the classes are drawn from. And because Division III coaches are only allowed to coach their teams for a couple of weeks outside of the season, for well over half the year, Swarthmore’s coaches have very few responsibilities. Thus, the same group of coaches that has to justify being paid year-round salaries for what is essentially quarterly work are the ones in charge of determining whether or not students should be required to take their classes. It seems like quite a conflict of self-interest to me.

I don’t mean to denigrate the good work that coaches do, or to pretend that they have zero responsibilities during the off-season. (They have to recruit, among other things.) But it would be foolish not to acknowledge that coaches are paid for the time they spend teaching. And it doesn’t seem right that the coaches whose salaries depend on the amount of time they spent instructing P.E. classes are the same ones who determine how many students are forced to enroll in their courses.

We need an independent body to determine whether a P.E. requirement is really necessary or not. If we don’t get one, hundreds of already fit people with very busy schedules will continue to be dragooned into taking ping-pong and bowling at inconvenient times of day, all to fulfill a silly and unnecessary requirement.

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