January 9, 2009

Unfit for the Core

The College's PE requirement needs rethinking.

The undergraduate Core curriculum is steeped in Greco-Roman tradition, and on the whole, students have benefited from Robert Maynard Hutchins’s idealistic vision to impart the skills and wisdom of Western civilization. But the attempts to achieve one Roman ideal—“Mens sana in corpore sano,” or a sound mind in a sound body—have proven particularly troublesome. Specifically, the U of C’s physical education requirement, composed of notoriously scattered classes and ambiguous requirements, fails to achieve the goal of encouraging physical fitness and isn’t consistent with the fundamental values of the Core.

Students often fulfill the physical education requirement by taking classes like Archery or Introduction to the Golf Swing—useful skills, no doubt, but not ones that will increase heart rates or lower cholesterol. Requirements are not correlated to weaknesses identified on the placement exam. Additionally, the majority of the classes either begin early in the morning or tend not to coincide with normal class times later in the day, placing a particular burden on students trying to juggle already complicated academic and extracurricular schedules.

The only way to create a true physical education Core that genuinely emphasized physical well-being would be to require four straight years of rigorous physical education. But this is clearly untenable. Cost and logistical nightmare aside, no one comes to the U of C to whip their abs into shape.

That’s not to say that physical well-being isn’t important. It is. But students should be able to realize that benefit for themselves—and prioritize academics over athletics if they prefer. Administrators should also realize that the physical education requirement is out of sync with the values of the remainder of the Core. In Hum and Sosc classes, the foundations of critical inquiry are formed. But taking a quarter of Introduction to First Aid does nothing to compel students to stay in shape once they’ve finished their requirement.

The best way for the U of C to promote a healthy, active student body is to expand on steps that have already been taken: specifically, maintaining appealing athletic facilities, promoting varsity, club, and intramural sports, and providing nutritional food options in the dining halls. These things are enough, allowing students who are concerned about maintaining a healthy lifestyle to do so.

For those who don’t care, there’s not much the University can do about it. After all, you can lead a U of C student to water, but you can’t make him swim.