To sink or swim: Test must stay

By Joe Katz

Over the last decade, the University of Chicago has made serious efforts to broaden its appeal among its target applicant base. The administration has been trying to shed some of the more negative images associated with life on campus, even at the cost of some of our offbeat nature. Wholesale change has been slow in coming, and we remain delightfully out of the mainstream of college life. Much to the disappointment of a small number of fourth-years, the pool deck is one place where the U of C still stands out from the crowd.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that as more and more universities abandon the swim test as a graduation requirement, we here at the University are still happy to demand a two-lap baptism in Myers-McLoraine Pool in exchange for a diploma. With the University of North Carolina surrendering to the trend after this spring, our seniors are among the last who have to swim for their degrees. Where 30 years ago 42 percent of colleges had some sort of swimming requirement, a recent Associated Press story listed only Notre Dame, MIT, Cornell, Columbia, Hamilton, Dartmouth, Swarthmore, Washington and Lee, and the service academies as the last holdouts.

There has been no indication that Chicago will join the war on water skills. And why should we return the call to arms? While the swim test might be nerve-wracking for certain land-loving fourth-years, it is a critical aspect of our educational philosophy and provides numerous benefits that our students might not otherwise receive.

The concept of “The Life of the Mind” is so ubiquitous here in Hyde Park that people tend to skirt over its deeper meaning. It’s more than the eggheaded rhetoricizing about high-minded theories at the theoretical level that epitomizes the UChicago stereotype. In its classic definition, the Life of the Mind is about being a Renaissance Man or Woman, knowledgeable enough about a wide range of subjects to form coherent opinions on topics far beyond their area of expertise. The less-than-buoyant among us would do well to remember that this emphasis on well roundedness has never been and should not be purely focused on intellectual matters.

To be a complete human being is to be in touch with the needs of the body, as well as the brain. Joining our peer institutions in giving up the swimming requirement would be a long step down the road of abandoning that commitment to the physical along with the mental. It is as central to the ideal of a balanced life as the Core, and such a step would be just as contrary to our foundational values.

Besides its implications for the University, the swim test is a crucial part of student life. It forces us to pick up an eminently practical skill on a campus where the teaching of such skills sometimes seems lacking. According to the National Center of Health Statistics, around 4,000 people die of drowning in the United States every year. To put approximately $175,000 worth of education into developing a young mind that doesn’t know enough to save itself when a day at the beach suddenly goes sour is enough to make an econ major scream. The benefits far outweigh the costs of facing the irritating prospect of finishing a full course load and still needing to know how to crawl stroke in order to leave Hyde Park with a degree.

Far more than an important life ability, swimming is also fantastic for cardiovascular health and low impact enough that one can continue to dive into the water well into old age. As Americans tend more and more toward the Newmanesque, giving UChicago students the opportunity to pick up an exercise method so effective at burning calories and so forgiving to one’s joints may well be more valuable than teaching them the most intimate intricacies of an delta-epsilon proof. Given the pervasive complaints one hears on this campus about the “fitness” of the student bodies, a little extra time in the pool might well make everyone’s experience here in Hyde Park just that much more aesthetically pleasing.

More to the point, the Myers-McLoraine Pool is one of the best collegiate swimming facilities in the Midwest. Its addition to the Ratner Athletic Center took a substantial chunk of our limited financial resources, and from the results it appears that it was worth every penny. Yet while giving the swimming and diving teams an on-campus home is a worthy goal, it’s far from enough to justify such an investment. Teaching our students how to swim encourages them to actually take advantage of what said resources have wrought. A multi-million dollar pool is virtually valueless if no one ever uses it. Introducing our first-years to Myers-McLoraine by testing them during O-Week will push them to get into the water and stay in there.

As we wend toward year’s end, the swim test becomes a more and more terrifying prospect for those who haven’t yet passed. One would certainly admit that it would be a rather silly reason to not walk the line in June. But the knowledge of how to conduct oneself in the water is an important part of living a well adjusted life, has distinct rewards for the health of the individual, and meets the aims of the university. In addition, more and more it seems like the swim test is one of the last quirky traditions that separates us from the Berkeleys and Harvards of the academic world. UChicago students, perhaps more than any other university denizens, are here to get a thorough education. The required dip in Myers-McLoraine is a vital part of that process.