Bartlett: Antiquated Aquatics

Dartmouth's swim test is a paragon of inconsistency.

by Nicholas Bartlett | 1/16/20 2:10am

Dartmouth College remains one of the few remaining elite, academic stalwarts clutching to the tradition of a “swim test” one untimed 50-yard lap in the pool as a graduation requirement. And try though I may, I simply cannot shake my befuddlement as to why this exercise sticks around. 

The preeminence of an Ivy League education and a meager jaunt in the pool couldn’t seem more dissonant. I don’t find the act of swimming to be specifically difficult, and I recognize that Dartmouth provides facilities and training programs for those looking to hone their form prior to the swim exam, but something about the principle of such an affair seems off-putting. Though arguments can be made about physical activity or safety, Dartmouth’s long-heralded swim test seems like the worst kind of tradition: one kept around for no better reason than a fear of change.

Mine isn’t the first voice to cast doubt upon the practice. The debate itself has raged on long before my time at Dartmouth began and will likely persist long after I graduate. Most recently, in late 2018, an athletics committee openly discussed and pondered the examination’s fate. The response, as reported by The Dartmouth, remained chiefly positive. The committee lobbied in favor of the swim test and Dartmouth’s faculty approved this resolution. The swim test’s very administrator championed swimming’s position as an “important life skill” and a necessity for basic safety reasons. The matter was settled. 

And yet, though the house of cards stood proudly, it seemed to teeter all the same. Swimming is an important life skill, sure, and it invariably serves a practical function in hedging the student body against the perils of living near the Connecticut River. But do these reasons prove sufficient to mandate swimming and swimming alone as a graduation requirement? Does nothing else satisfy the stated criteria, yet go untouched by Dartmouth’s bureaucracy?

Take the issue of student health and safety. A first glance into Centers for Disease Control statistics seems to bear out the risk posed by ill-prepared swimmers, with approximately 10 Americans drowning each day, with risk factors including both a lack of “ability” and proximity to a body of water. But swimming isn’t the only danger in the world.

Approximately 26 percent of all American collegiate deaths trace back to the broader category of “accidents,” with greater than half of this already significant chunk pertaining to motor vehicles in some capacity. Vehicular accidents, then, are both far more fatal and frequent than the swimming-related tragedies that Dartmouth currently targets. And yet, for all the risk and ubiquity of vehicles within American life, Dartmouth does not go out of its way to require mandatory driver’s education courses. One can step foot on this campus and proudly flaunt a diploma without so much as sniffing a steering wheel. Demanding that students fulfill a swim test in order to graduate when equally dangerous activities aren’t subject to a similar degree is illogical. If the swim test actually were a matter of public safety, the logical step would be to expand the mandate to all equally risky walks of life. But the administration doesn’t.

Others may retort that the swim test is in fact consistent; consistent, that is, with Dartmouth’s traditions. We’re a school that sings “lest the old traditions fail,” and we certainly live up to that line. But let’s take a more critical look at our traditions. In particular, we must ask ourselves if a tradition facilitates social cohesion or has some reason to exist beyond just having stayed unchanged for year. Although the swim test is an experience shared by all graduating Dartmouth students, it doesn’t meaningfully mobilize the student body or crystallize a sense of culture. For an example of a good traditions, consider the much-beloved Homecoming bonfire. This fiery romp about the blaze fashions every member of the freshman class into a simultaneous participant and invites all other students and alumni to try their hand at playing the spectator. We all do it; we all (mostly) love it; and most importantly, it stands out amid the monotony. It’s something special, something you cannot hope to find anywhere else or recapture on your own. It oozes Dartmouth spirit and becomes a talking point in itself. It builds community. 

The swim test is hardly so effective. It brings no celebration or cause for camaraderie; all it encourages is rote compliance. It lacks the mythos, the sense of awe and the community-building on which tradition ought to be predicated. The swim test is little more than a longstanding prerequisite in the vein of distributives and PE credits. It’s a persistent requirement, not a true tradition. And such requirement can and ought to be revisited over time to ensure that it lingers on for the right reasons.

This is, after all, an issue of consistency. The swim test doesn’t work well as a tradition and it equally struggles in the realm of efficacy, given that its primary rationale is arbitrarily applied to the act of swimming alone. The test stands as an outlier in every sense of the word. And indeed, this greatly contested swim test persists thanks to its rather specious cultural inertia — less a respect for tradition and more an unwillingness to change. 

Dartmouth seems to mandate the swim test because it’s easier to keep with the current than to rock the boat. And perhaps that stability alone is worthwhile, even if it is not real tradition. But the fact that Dartmouth justifies its swim test as practical without equally acting on these same convictions proves both inconsistent and concerning. It’s time to align rhetoric with action: Spare the pretense and end the swim test.