Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Phys Ed

Should there be a college-wide Physical Education requirement for all degree programs?

The question is about to break big on campus, and I'd like to get my thoughts in order before that happens. (One of the downsides of deaning is that 'thinking out loud' is taken as 'waffling.' Better to be certain and wrong than uncertain and right. See Bush, George W.)

The argument 'for' that I've heard most often is that students are increasingly obese, and phys ed is our best and most direct hope of addressing that.

I'll admit, I consider this argument obtuse. Students vote in perilously low numbers, but we don't require Intro to American Government. Many students have dysfunctional family lives, but we don't require courses on Marriage and Family. Many students lack the foggiest idea about how to handle money, but we don't require any sort of Lifetime Economics. Besides, anybody who took phys ed as a requirement in college knows that it's possible to get through it with a minimum of exertion, if you know what you're doing. (Full disclosure: I met one unit of phys ed in college with badminton. My inner eight-year-old still smirks at the word 'shuttlecock.')

The argument 'against' varies, but usually comes down to two points: the courses don't transfer to four-year schools very well, if at all, and those credits could be more productively used in other ways.

To those I'll add: phys ed doesn't work well for adult students, evening/weekend students, students with childcare issues, or students taking lots of 'distance learning' classes.

The broader question, I guess, is what is important enough to be considered part of the foundational 'general education' of any college graduate. (I have no issue with a phys ed requirement in majors where it's integral to the major itself – kinesiology, say, or dance. I also have no issue with it in a major like Criminal Justice, since the profession for which the students are being trained has some pretty intense physical requirements.) Are college graduates expected to be athletic?

Well, no.

They're expected to be literate, and to have some general historical sense, and to be capable of real-world math, and to be able to spot crappy arguments, and to have in-depth training in at least one area. I think there's a serious argument to be made about foreign-language acquisition, and I'm open to suggestions about scientific method or Great Books or diversity awareness or lifelong learning. If they happen to be athletic too, well, great, but I see it as an extra.

Questions like these are frustrating, because the reality is that we only have so many credits to play with. (The state is very particular about the maximum number of credits in a two-year degree program.) Adding a requirement for x means subtracting credits from something else. Typically, we have to devote a certain number of credits to broad 'general education' requirements (English Composition, a math course, etc.), and a certain number to the major, so the actual room to tend to other desired goods is quite small. Adding a 'diversity' course means eliminating a history or a language. Adding a course on 'character education' means subtracting one from math or the major. And so on. It really is zero-sum.

For reasons more instinctive than thoughtful, I can't help but see phys ed requirements as anachronistic, like the two-lap swim test I had to pass to graduate Snooty Liberal Arts College. There may be a certain charm in them, but when you're trying to achieve new goals within the same number of credits, it strikes me that something has to give.

What do you think? Should history majors have a phys ed requirement?