Should Gym Class Be Mandatory in College?

A new study shows a decline in university P.E. requirements, and its authors bemoan the trend as a contributor to obesity. Our writer's crying foul.

Last week, a new Oregon State University study reported that in 2010, just under 40 percent of students in four-year colleges and universities were required to take physical education courses—a dramatic drop compared to the 97 percent who did so in the 1920s and 30s.

Bradley Cardinal, lead author in the case, was none too pleased: “It is alarming to see four-year institutions following the path that K-12 schools have already gone down, eliminating exercise as a part of the curriculum even as obesity rates climb,” he said in a press release. I’ve read other articles and blogs supporting this notion—that the falling away of P.E. mandates in four-year higher-education institutions is a sure indicator of The End As We Know It. This must be what the Mayans were talking about, right?

Well, the Mayans didn’t recently graduate from college. I did, and I’m here to tell you that requiring physical education in a university setting is stupid. There. I said it.

I’ll go so far as to admit that health class in high school is, and should be, important. Even gym (oh, how I loathed thee with thine stink) can be a learning experience for a growing teenager. But that’s what high school is—a learning experience. You learn, even if you don’t always enjoy it.

So if high school was the hazing, then college is getting into the fraternity. You’re a brother now; you call the shots. And so, the food you eat, and whether or not you choose to go sweat it off in the gym afterwards, is your choice. It seems to me that forcing a student to take physical education courses at the risk of not graduating (gasp!) is not the way to instill a lifelong love of physical fitness. And classes like bowling and badminton (true offerings) probably aren’t going to do much in terms of curbing obesity, either.

In the Philadelphia region, Temple University and Drexel University do not require physical education. Neither does West Chester University. Swarthmore College, on the other hand, does.

Philadelphia University takes a middle-of-the-road approach. Educators there give you a choice between “service-learning” and P.E. The former integrates traditional classroom teaching with volunteer work in the community. To give a very rudimentary example: If you’re in a foreign language course, you might spend the semester translating health-care materials for non-English speakers as well as continuing to study the language itself in class. Which alternative do you think a Philadelphia University student would more likely choose—the one that might look good on a resume or the one that requires an hour on the tennis court?

I spoke with Madeline Le Sage, a 2011 Philly U alum, about why she chose to take a service-learning course instead of P.E. “I didn’t think taking a golfing course at 8 a.m. once a week was going to improve my life in any way,” she said. She opted to help others via service-learning, “instead of pretending to help myself.”

Temple University senior Brian Hegney disagrees, saying that “an introductory health and wellness class should be encouraged, if not required for freshmen.” As a victim of dining-hall food and binge drinking, he thinks his weight gain might have been avoided with a better understanding of health. “Compared to other tedious first-semester courses, a three-credit P.E. class is hardly that great of a sacrifice.”

Sure, these points are both valid. But the question—“To P.E. or not To P.E.?”—isn’t one the universities should be answering, anyway. It’s a question students should be allowed to answer for themselves.

Yes, universities should make physical-education courses and resources available, and those things should be encouraged—but they shouldn’t be mandated. I mean, let’s be serious: Four years of forced golf and badminton classes aren’t going to make you fall in love with those sports, and they sure as hell won’t make a dent when it comes to obesity.

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