A plea for physical education

June 3, 2016

Two forces have converged to gut physical education in the US. On one side is the increasing emphasis on subjects that can be measured on standardized tests. On the other is the direction of those resources available for physical education to sports teams. The result is a host of future costs imposed on society.

When we talk of education today, we speak of reading, writing, mathematics, history, sciences—in other words, academics. We ignore teaching children how to exist in the world physically and socially (though social education is a topic for another time). International education metrics have nothing to say. The only tracking of physical education in the United States is the Presidential Fitness Tests administered to grade school students, and they are largely ignored. And so physical education gets shrunk and cut and neglected from its former, already modest levels, and is often dropped entirely.

The truly grating part of this squeeze is that it doesn't usually help academic education either. The time devoted is largely wasted so that after seven hours at school, so little has been accomplished that the students are expected to spend additional hours working at home.

After the focus on pure academics has done its part, what resources are left are typically focused on the sports teams. There is nothing wrong with providing an avenue for the most gifted athletes to work at a higher level, just as there is nothing wrong with providing special opportunities to the most academically advanced, but it should not command the lion's share of the resources available. Yet that is what today's sports teams do. Rather than being seen as a luxury, they are treated as the core of schools' physical education programs, and sometimes of the identity of the school, leading to absurdities such as pep rallies, cheerleaders, and marching bands.

The focus on sports teams also perverts the hiring of physical education teachers. The teachers are team coaches first, instructors of the general studentry second if at all. Many lack adequate breadth and knowledge to teach general physical education, and many more lack the emotional intelligence to work with students outside the quasi-military structure of team sports.

How did it end up this way and why does it stay this way? I know the beginning of it at least: a nineteenth century novel called Tom Brown's Schooldays, which extolled the virtues of team sports. The book's popularity led to a rash of sports teams in England's elite boarding schools and gave rise to soccer, football, and rugby. The idea of a team of a few students representing the school and vying against teams from other schools was there from early on, and spread to Cambridge and Oxford with the students, and thence to America through institutions like West Point that place strong emphasis on athletics. West Point, however, requires sports for all students.

I suspect that what keeps sports teams as the focus of physical education is a combination of nostalgia on the part of parents who were emotionally invested in sports teams when they were in school, pressure from professional sports leagues that regard the schools as the first stage of their recruiting pipeline, and the inertia that affects all sprawling institutions with a plethora of stakeholders.

But let us imagine that we could overcome this inertia. What would constitute a better approach to physical education? To begin with, team sports are not the foundation. They will form a part of the material, but there are fundamentals to be addressed first. The purpose of physical education is to teach children how to exist in their physical world, not just now, but for the rest of their lives. The curriculum must begin with motion and medicine.

Motion means moving the body through the world, first just moving itself—running, swimming, climbing, and tumbling—and then moving other objects—weightlifting, hiking with a rucksack, wrestling or judo, and ball games. Wrestling and judo also provide a mode of physical violence that minimizes damage to the combatants. The US marine corps teaches a similar system for the same reason. Ball games teach hand/eye coordination and moving relatie to other people. Of the popular games, soccer and basketball are the ones o teach. They require little equipment, emphasize continuous motion and effort for all involved, don't emphasize any one player over the others, and have a low rate of serious or chronic injury. They also provide a ritual of social interaction for individuals who otherwise would have little in common.

I must make a digression here about American rules football. Football has no place in the schools or in any youth program. The sport was historically so deadly that it was almost scrapped and saved only by Teddy Roosevelt stepping in to change a few rules to somewhat reduce the danger. Yet multiple children still die or are permanently injured every year, and this is seen as commonplace. It is time to let it vanish alongside lead based paint and thalidomide for pregnant women as a mistake not to be repeated.

Returning to the topic of motion, there is a theoretical side as well. Students need to how how to assemble an exercise regimen and how tissues respond and recover. These topics then lead directly into medicine, both the proper care of the body—nutrition, handling stress, menstruation, and sex education—and treatment. Indeed, students should have cumulative first aid traning throughout their education.

Once a school has covered this for its studentry, then having sports teams might be a pleasant luxury if there are resources for them, but first we should expect an adequate physical education—provided by teachers, not coaches—for all students.

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