Verbum Ultimum: Physically Unfit

The College’s physical education requirement has little value and should not be reinstated post-pandemic.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 1/29/21 2:00am

Since the onset of the pandemic, many cherished aspects of the Dartmouth experience have remained on hold. One familiar feature of Dartmouth life, however, has not been sorely missed: the physical education requirement. Often derided as a waste of time at best and a hidden fee at worst, the PE requirement is most notable for bogging down students with mandatory — and often expensive — checkbox-filling activities. Eliminating the PE graduation requirement for the Class of 2020 and the Class of 2021 was a necessary move given the pandemic, but it’s time to go further. The College should permanently do away with the PE requirement.

The motive behind the PE program is not itself objectionable. Exercise is fundamental to health and well-being, and New Hampshire provides a fantastic setting to get outside. Unfortunately, the mandatory program suffers from a number of issues.

The current requirement — three PE credits — requires a large time commitment. For undergraduates balancing academic classes, extracurricular activities and jobs, the imposition of obligatory, inflexible periods of College-monitored exercise seems unwarranted. Many Dartmouth students enjoy physical activity, but they should be able to partake in it at their own discretion. 

Additionally, decisions about what activities count and don’t count for PE credit are confusing and seemingly arbitrary. For instance, Dartmouth denies credit to a variety of student-led outdoor activities operated by the Dartmouth Outing Club — hiking a 23-mile long traverse of the Presidential Range with the DOC receives no credit, while a virtual sailing class counts for the PE requirement. Dartmouth implicitly penalizes certain forms of exercise which do not fall under its direct purview, disincentivizing “non-official” physical activities, even when many offer meaningful opportunities to get active. Even more confusingly, the College does provide support, through credit, for certain activities that require seemingly little physical exertion, such as mindfulness classes and a class on learning strategies.

Within the Ivy League, only Columbia University and Cornell University share mandatory physical education requirements. All of the remaining institutions have determined that students are autonomous and sensible enough to pursue exercise without coercion.

None of this is to say that PE classes should be eliminated entirely. Some students enjoy the opportunity for regular, planned physical exercise. If students freely choose to take such classes, then so be it. We instead take issue with the obligatory nature of the current program and the demands on students’ time it can incur. Instead of working with students who actually want to attend, the current PE program forces all other students to expend hours on classes they have little interest in taking. 

The College should give students the agency to choose how they exercise. PE courses may still be offered on a strictly voluntary basis. But PE requirements serve little purpose, save to demand students’ time and dollars beyond their tuition payments.

The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, the executive editors and the editor-in-chief.

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