Reimagining Physical Education

To the Curriculum Committee, and (again) in particular, The Fundamental Skills sub-committee,
The phrase “P.E.” evokes memories that vary wildly depending on whom you ask. Responses range from reminiscences of time spent playing with friends, away from the doldrums of the classroom, to shudders at the recollection of the gym’s sickly smell which was made far worse by the desire to be almost anywhere else. As conflicting as these sentiments are, they are in part rooted in some form of the following insight: P.E. is different from being in a “regular” class (of course, opinions vary on whether this is a good thing.) In fact, in the Commonwealth, “Physical Education” is called “Physical Training.” While otherwise retaining much of the same nature, this nomenclature explicitly establishes the distinction from academic activity even more.

P.E. today is not a domain of higher education. Colleges don’t typically require their students to fulfill any kind of physical education requirement to graduate. Amongst those that still do, most seem to be motivated by some notion of the importance of fitness or “healthy” habits. The vast majority of these programs are not considered academic or relevant to academics but instead, extra skills that a student ought to learn to be “well-rounded.” This would suggest that the cultivation of the mind and of the body are distinct pursuits — both important but not directly related.

But this is an astonishing view, particularly in a world where we imagine we have moved on from Cartesian dualism. Ask anyone who has ever been acquainted with cognitive science, fallen seriously ill, or dedicated time to yoga, and they will tell you that the mind and the body are inextricably intertwined. A scientist might point to the fact that it is possible to image the brain with results that correspond to the person’s mental activity. A psychiatrist will tell you that pills can affect a dramatic change in mental state through a series of physical reactions. Someone who has had a chronic physical illness could talk to you about the numerous times when they have felt betrayed by and estranged from their mind in addition to their physical symptoms. Those who do practices that encompass the body and the mind like tai chi and yoga are intimately familiar with the ways that they can use the body to profoundly transform the mind.

Given the profusion of evidence, it is inexplicable that any institution dedicated to fostering thought would not require that its students become aware of and learn to carefully examine, the effects of their bodies on their minds. We are so meticulously instructed as students on how to guard our thoughts from emotional influences, biases and poor forms of reasoning. Yet to imagine that we can stop there assumes that our minds function perfectly otherwise and do so consistently. Unfortunately, this is simply not the reality of things. What we are doing is akin to giving a race car driver the keys to a vehicle after extensive training in a simulator, and omitting to mention that in the real world, a car’s ability to perform is subject to more than just the driver’s skill. There are all sorts of ways the vehicle might physically wear down or respond to its environment that will fundamentally affect the quality of the drive. Any good driver ought to be able to account for and address these issues as they arise.

What would such physical education look like? It’s difficult to provide a precise prescription because there’s really nothing like it in mainstream higher education at the moment. What can be said is that it can’t simply be physical activity in the vein of athletics or fitness; we certainly don’t need to bring back the swim test. Instead, it is essential that the instruction is grounded in reflection and aims at furthering a personal understanding of the how the mind and body interact. The ways this might manifest provide abundant fodder for conversations to come, but if we are as serious as we say we are about fostering thought, it is absolutely critical that these conversations occur going forward.