De Guardiola: Unhealthy Education

by Mercedes de Guardiola | 4/27/16 6:30pm

With childhood and adult obesity rates remaining high and posing significant health problems in American society, it is important that colleges prepare students to become healthy adults. However, the College’s P.E. requirements place an undue burden on students and do not support building healthy habits.

For the sake of comparison, Dartmouth is one of the few colleges that still requires some sort of physical education credit to graduate. In a 2010 survey of four-year colleges, only 39 percent still required students to take P.E. down from two thirds in the 1980s. Among other Ivy League institutions, only Columbia University and Cornell University still require a physical education credit.

Not only is the requirement uncommon among colleges, its offerings at Dartmouth are inconvenient. Last year, College President Phil Hanlon made it clear that he considers increased academic rigor a fundamental part of his broader “Moving Dartmouth Forward” policy initiative. If the administration wants students to focus more on their studies, however, it also needs to recognize that time will be taken from something else. Unlike extracurricular activities, which can be scheduled around class time, physical education classes are inconveniently scheduled with no consideration for the academic timetable. Want to take a P.E. class on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from noon to 1 p.m.? It runs into the 11 and 12 class slots. The same is true for the early morning classes; very few students want to get up at 7 a.m. to attend an intense workout before rushing to shower, change and get breakfast before their first class. Even if classes fit neatly into one’s schedule, the P.E. class will inevitably conflict with x-hours, office hours or labs.

To make things better, the College should revise the P.E. schedule so that it adheres to the class schedule. In addition, come weekend classes could be offered. While weekend programs are available through the Dartmouth Outing Club, it is hard for many students to be away for a full day, let alone a full weekend. A class that takes up one to two hours on a Saturday or Sunday would be a reasonable commitment if scheduled for a reasonable time.

Moreover, the administration should not prioritize P.E. classes over extracurriculars. While P.E. classes may help teach students healthy habits, no employer is going to value the yoga skills you sort of learned over sophomore summer over experience in leading a student organization or mentoring local children. And why should they? The purpose of the College is to prepare students for “a lifetime of learning and of responsible leadership”. Encouraging students to prioritize valuable experience in an extracurricular activity is precisely in line with the mission of the College. Requiring a random P.E. class is not.

I am not saying that the P.E. requirement should dropped entirely. Exercise should be an important part of everyone’s life, regardless of skill level. Regular physical activity has been shown to increase life expectancy, improve mental health and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Requiring students to take P.E. classes, however, does not teach them to take responsibility for their own physical well-being.

If Dartmouth wants to teach its students lifelong skills that help them maintain a healthy lifestyle, a better way to do so would be to offer gym credit in lieu of P.E. credit. A credit for going to the gym for a set number of hours per week would teach students how to manage their schedule efficiently to make time for physical acitivity. Since Dartmouth already — unofficially — offers a P.E. credit to students who are training, the P.E. department should publicize this option to many students who are unaware of it.

Such an option would be fairly easy to implement because the Zimmerman Fitness Center has a system that tracks students going in and out, What about students simply loitering in the fitness center? Given that there’s very little space to gather without being a nuisance, loitering is unlikely to be an issue. Moreover, if students really want to get away with doing nothing, it’s just as easy to do that in a P.E. class.

When students graduate from Dartmouth, they will enter a workforce that demands at the very least a five-day, 9-to-5 commitment each week. Many of them, especially if they work in the technology or financial sector, will be asked to work far beyond the 40 hour weekly requirement. Beyond work, they’ll be responsible for basic time commitments like going to doctor’s appointments, running errands, maintaining their home, handling bills, keeping up with friends and more. They alone will have to make the commitment each week to find the time to maintain a healthy lifestyle — a skill no P.E. requirement will ever teach.