Dixon: Dartmouth Removed its Only Useful Graduation Requirement

Dartmouth must face its problems rather than avoid them and reinstate the swim test requirement.

by Ethan Dixon | 1/17/23 4:05am

As a lifeguard and pool manager, I’ve saved drowning kids. I’ve taught kids to swim. I’m even teaching a fellow ’24 how to swim. I know that all it takes is one moment, one mistake, to drown. However, despite being a school nestled on the banks of the Connecticut River, Dartmouth’s administration has somehow concluded that its students should go about life without having the basic skill — the life-saving skill — of knowing how to swim. Swim lessons and tests save lives, which is why I’m disappointed and confused, yet somehow not surprised, by the Dartmouth faculty’s decision to get rid of the swim test.

An article from 2018 describes how the College formed a committee to consider the swim test and ultimately upheld it. The senior athletic director for physical education, Joann Brislin, stated back then that the swim test supported student safety. Apparently, though, four years later, the swim test has suddenly become an obsolete burden. Magically, students no longer need to know how to swim!

However, let’s be fair here and consider the College’s input. Here are the “reasons” given by the administration for this change:

First, the former head of the committee, in a statement to The Dartmouth, indicated that this requirement was created during a time when men training to serve in the military needed to know how to swim. A cool bit of Dartmouth trivia, to be sure, but this doesn’t explain why the test got the ax. 

Next, the former chair indicated that this change would give students greater flexibility in PE credits and made clear that the decision was not meant to “devalue” the importance of knowing how to swim. I’m not convinced. Without the motivation of the test, students are unlikely to learn to swim and will undoubtedly be less safe as a result.

If the College truly cared about flexibility, it would combine this motivation with a focus on water safety and offer a wider range of swim classes. Currently on the timetable, there are 11 available spots in two time slots! It’s not hard to imagine how 11 spots could cause issues for a 4,500 strong undergraduate population. This isn’t a recent issue. A 2014 local NBC segment showed Dartmouth students struggling to get into a swim class in time to graduate due to limited spots. 

The chair continued, saying that the swim test did not test swimming competency or increase water safety. Let me repeat this. They are claiming that the Dartmouth swim test doesn’t test swimming competency. That issue clearly lies within the College’s implementation and design  of the test and its classes, not the test itself. If the administration is unhappy with the test, they should change it to better test swimming skills. 

Finally, and most importantly, the former chair of the Committee on Instruction said that the swim test created a burden for some students to graduate, mostly students of color. This is true. Those who take swimming lessons before college are those who had enough free time, the money to pay for them and access to water. It follows that students from disadvantaged backgrounds would be most likely to have to take a swim class here at Dartmouth.

However, to borrow a phrase from Kellyanne Conway, this is clearly an “alternative fact.” The swim test does not actually present a burden, as the swim class could fulfill one of the required “wellness” credits for students. Therefore, it would not add to these students’ course loads. Not to mention, it teaches a life saving skill. In the light of Dartmouth’s measly offering of swim classes, one could claim that the “burden” the administration speaks of is one of its own making.

Just as the D-Plan temporarily helped Dartmouth avoid a housing shortage, Dartmouth’s administration has once again used bogus reasons to avoid facing the problem. If Dartmouth wanted to be an open and equitable institution, it would ensure that students graduate with a complete education. That means realizing disparities both inside and outside of the classroom and taking steps to bridge them. Dartmouth, I’m glad to report, has identified one such disparity — the swim test disproportionately affects students of color. Its answer, however, is to run from the issue, not try to make the swim class and test more inclusive and comprehensive.

Some will ask why the swim test should be a requirement — students will learn how to swim if they want. It’s a fair question. However, by requiring the test, Dartmouth would place a strong emphasis on a life saving skill that some may otherwise be too nervous or busy to learn. Just as we mandate vaccinations, we must also mandate swim lessons for the simple reason that they both save lives. 

The logical solution, and one that doesn’t avoid the issue, would be to reinstate the swim test requirement, adjust it to better test swimming competency and expand the availability of swim classes. Use student teachers if need be — there are plenty of certified lifeguards among the students, and I’m sure they would love a solid paycheck. Who wouldn’t, with the exorbitant cost of a Dartmouth education?

Dartmouth sells itself as a leader in higher education. Dartmouth’s decision to end the swim test, however, is not that of a leader. It is merely the latest in a string of decisions made to run from problems, not face them.

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